House of Commons
Friday 5 February 2010
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
The Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker (Standing Order No. 3).
I beg to move, That the House sit in private.
Question put forthwith (Standing Order. No. 163).
Terrorist Asset-Freezing (Temporary Provisions) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by the Prime Minister, Secretary David Miliband, Mr. Secretary Straw, Secretary Alan Johnson, Mr. Secretary Denham, Mr. Liam Byrne, Mr. Stephen Timms, Ian Pearson and Sarah McCarthy-Fry, presented a Bill to make provision for the temporary validity of certain Orders in Council imposing financial restrictions on, and in relation to, persons suspected of involvement in terrorist activity; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 62) with explanatory notes (Bill 62-EN).
Local Authorities (Overview and Scrutiny) Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
My Bill will strengthen the scrutiny powers already available to local authorities, and extend the range of public service providers that can be subject to the scrutiny process. It is designed to improve accountability in order to improve outcomes and thereby drive up the standards of local public services.
I express my thanks to all those who have helped with the drafting and preparation of the Bill. I thank those local councillors and officials in both central and local government who have given me the benefit of their experience of the way in which scrutiny is working now. I thank all those people who have written to me about the Bill with very constructive suggestions, demonstrating the increasing interest of local authorities in the scrutiny process and the seriousness with which they take it. Hundreds of people from across the country have written letters or sent e-mails urging me to adopt their preferred Bill, and I hope that they will understand why it has not been possible for me to reply to them individually. I hope that they appreciate the reasons for my choice of Bill.
I recognise the work of the Local Government Association in providing extremely valuable guidance on scrutiny processes and in submitting a detailed response to the Bill. I express my gratitude for the assistance provided by the Centre for Public Scrutiny, both in terms of the professional expertise and advice generously made available to me and the wealth of excellent material available on the centre’s website. Finally, I commend the staff of the Library for their excellent research paper on the Bill.
Before coming to the Bill and the increase in powers that it proposes, I want to say a few words more generally about local democracy and the power and role of scrutiny. For much of the second half of the last century, local councils saw their powers to influence the growth, shape and future development of the communities that they serve gradually weakened. Many of the services that councils had traditionally provided directly were centralised or privatised. Councils became increasingly dependent on central Government for their financial base. They were subject to intense political and financial pressures, locally and nationally, as the demand for quality public services grew, but taxpayers’ willingness to pay for them declined. As a result, the provision of services was gradually fragmented; the quality of many services declined; the lines of accountability and responsibility became confused; and the perception grew that the provider of the service was frequently more important than the consumer.
Not surprisingly, the electorate gradually also became confused as to who was responsible, and with that growing confusion about the lines of accountability came increasing dissatisfaction with the quality of service. Voters were unsure as to who was to blame when things went wrong, and they lost confidence in the capacity of the council to put things right. Of course, as we all recognise, that was gradually reflected in declining levels of interest and turnout at local elections.
The last 10 years have given all local authorities a much more secure financial base, a much clearer view of their role and the capacity to invest heavily to improve local services and infrastructure. Yet the levels of public engagement with local democracy and public support for local authorities are still frequently far too low. That is in spite of gradual improvements in performance, as evidenced by the inspection reports, and the gradual increase in the number of four-star councils that are now performing at a very high level.
There will always be differences between the main parties about the structure and financing of local government. However, the good news is that there is now a stronger, cross-party consensus about the need for greater accountability, greater transparency and more decentralisation of decision making than has existed for many years. That was evident in the debate on the local government finance settlement earlier this week. All the major parties now agree that if local democracy is to be revived, the direction of travel has to be towards further decentralisation, increasing localism and increasing personalisation of public services. There is also growing recognition of the importance of local public service providers working in partnership on common objectives. Isolation and fragmentation of the delivery of services is ineffective and highly expensive, which is where the scrutiny function of local authorities becomes of central importance.
Today, people are used to accessing high-quality services from the private sector 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Expectations of high-quality services tailored to individual need, delivered at a time convenient for the service user, are rising continually. People also want more from the public sector—from central and local government. There is growing demand for more information on local services. I must refer to an enormously important development: the launch of the data.gov.uk website, which enables everyone in Britain to access a potentially infinite amount of information on all local public services. It is the beginning of a remarkable transformation in the availability of information to the public. There is also demand for greater consultation on how local services are provided, and for greater public involvement in the shape of those services. There are also demands for action and proper complaints systems when the public feel that things do not work properly.
As almost all public services are delivered locally, the efficiency and effectiveness of local government is crucial, and in recent years much has already been done to bring that about. The past decade has seen many improvements. We now have greater financial stability, with three-year financial settlements enabling local authorities to plan ahead in a more stable manner. There is a reduction in the number of central targets and inspection regimes, and associated greater flexibility locally. There is greater financial flexibility through a more prudential borrowing scheme, too.
One of my concerns about my hon. Friend’s Bill is that there is no provision that addresses the question, “quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” or “who will guard the guardians?” To take up his point about flexibility, my local authority has decided to axe the sheltered housing warden service. As a result of all the local opposition and the High Court decision, it is now revisiting the issue. There seems to be no way to hold the local authority to account. Is there any way, in his Bill, of holding the local authority to account in those circumstances?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. In the Bill there is no such way, but through the ballot box there is. Another answer to his question is that increasing emphasis is being given to the power of the public to influence and pressurise local authorities, through the community call for action, the councils’ call for action, and the new emphasis on petitions. All those were introduced in recent local government legislation. That, in addition to the normal power through the ballot box, gives the public more power to influence local authorities’ decisions.
I want to draw attention to an important change in recent years: local authorities now have a general power of well-being, after calling for it for many years. They are no longer shackled by central Government restrictions on how they interpret the long-term needs of their areas. Of course, the role of councillors and councils, with their unique democratic mandate, is absolutely critical to making sure that local services respond to the needs of local communities, although I fully accept that, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, decisions by local authorities do not always reflect the needs of their communities.
Councils must be given the powers that they need to act decisively and effectively on behalf of their citizens, and the powers and capacity to scrutinise, influence and shape all public services, including those delivered by other providers, which may be in the private sector or the third sector, or that may be agents of central Government. That is a new, much stronger role for local government, placing it firmly at the centre of decision making in the community. It is central to the long-term process of rebuilding public confidence in the democratic process overall.
I want to say a word about the role of scrutiny and how it has developed in recent years. Although the separation of local authorities’ powers into executive and scrutiny functions has been in place for barely 10 years, enormous progress has been made in many local authorities, where the power of scrutiny is clearly understood. In some parts of the country, oversight and scrutiny panels have started to shape the local delivery of health and crime prevention policies. In the more successful authorities, the panels have already led to an increase in public engagement and a greater recognition by service providers of the need to respond to public concerns.
It would be naive to assume that every local authority has fully grasped the potential of the new scrutiny function, but I think that it is generally recognised that understanding is increasing, and the number of people calling for a return to the old system is dramatically reducing. Now is the time to move forward and ensure that scrutiny is an outward-looking process that considers the wider impact of how effectively public money is spent across all public services in a local area.
The growth of local strategic partnerships and the establishment of comprehensive area assessments mean that councils must now take responsibility for the effective use of public funds across their whole area, and they should be able to hold all public service providers to account on behalf of the communities that they represent. At a time of rising public aspirations and increased aversion to higher levels of taxation, councils and other public service providers need to find ways to deliver ever more personalised and flexible public services with the same level of resource. Effective scrutiny processes can help them to find ways of doing more with less.
My hon. Friend has a very good Bill, and there are some important points raised by it. I have a question to ask him about designation, which will be done by the Secretary of State. I assume that it is not intended that Parliament, or Members of Parliament, should be among those who can be designated, because that could raise important issues relating to privilege.
My hon. Friend raises a really important point. From my point of view, the groups that he mentions will not be subject to the regulations that will be published. It is a matter for the Government which organisations and individuals they include, but in all the discussions about the Bill to which I have been party, there was no suggestion that Parliament should be designated in the regulations.
On that point, I am never particularly in favour of giving Ministers all sorts of discretionary powers; one never knows who the Minister will be at any given time. I am not quite sure why the hon. Gentleman has taken the approach of handing over the designation of the bodies that will be scrutinised to Ministers, because the definition in the Bill could cover a very wide range of organisations that are in receipt of some sort of public funding, including charities and others; all sorts of such organisations deliver services in my constituency in that way. There might be concern about how widely the definition is drawn in practice.
That is an important point, and that concern has been raised by a number of organisations. However, given that the measure is a radical step forward in giving local authorities powers to scrutinise a wide range of organisations, there probably does need to be more time to build up consensus about the range of organisations included. The hon. Gentleman will recall that the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 lists, I think, 20 public agencies that can now be scrutinised as part of the local area agreement process. That list could well be specified in regulations under my Bill, but there are other agencies and providers that could be specified, too, not least the utility companies and public transport providers. Further debate is probably needed before the regulations are issued, rather than specifying in the Bill which bodies should be included.
Since the development of scrutiny in the Local Government Act 2000, enormous progress has been made. Initially, councils had to set up at least one scrutiny committee to examine decision making across the council, acting as a check and balance on the powerful council executives. Those committees had Select Committee-style powers, and were able to call in officers and members to give evidence. They could also require information to be given, but only in relation to council executive decisions.
Scrutiny committees were also provided with wide ranging powers to examine any issue of importance in a council’s area and make recommendations to the council, but in such reviews the scrutiny committees did not enjoy the same Select Committee-style powers as they did when looking at executive decisions. The co-operation of external bodies in these circumstances was entirely voluntary, and frequently it was difficult to find that co-operation.
The Health and Social Care Act 2001 provided upper-tier local authorities with the power to review the planning, provision and operation of health services in the area and to make reports and recommendations to local NHS bodies. Scrutiny committees may require NHS bodies to provide information, attend scrutiny meetings, answer questions and respond to recommendations made by the scrutiny committee. Under the 2001 Act, NHS bodies must also consult the relevant local authority scrutiny committee about proposals for substantial service changes. If the committee is unhappy with the proposed changes, the issue can be referred up to the independent regulator.
A further step forward was made when the Police and Justice Act 2006 required every local authority to have a crime and disorder committee with powers to scrutinise decisions made or actions taken by the crime and disorder reduction partnership. As with the health scrutiny regime, crime and disorder scrutiny committees can require information, require officers to attend meetings to answer questions, and require a response to the recommendations that they make.
The Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 extended the Select Committee-style powers. The new arrangements have made scrutiny more outward-looking, and it can focus on the activities of public sector partners such as Jobcentre Plus, joint waste authorities and the Highways Agency in respect of agreed local priorities.
Would my hon. Friend’s Bill extend to railway contractors? I have in mind the appalling record of First Capital Connect on the Thameslink line, which has affected so many of my constituents since the dispute, and its failure to restore proper services. Would my local authority be able to call the company to account through the scrutiny process?
Again, my hon. Friend makes an important point. As he knows, that would be the subject of future regulations, but railway contractors as well as the train operating companies, other public transport services and other public transport maintenance companies that are wholly or partly financed by public funds could potentially be listed in the regulations. My hon. Friend’s intervention reinforces the point that a further period of debate and discussion is probably needed about the individual organisations and providers that should be included in the future regulations.
The Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 required local authorities for the first time to provide a dedicated scrutiny officer. That requirement should be in force by 1 April this year. Only this week, the Flood and Water Management Bill increased the powers of local authorities to scrutinise the various risk management authorities on the exercise of their flood and coastal erosion functions.
The Bill takes forward proposals in last year’s local government Green Paper, “Strengthening local democracy,” on which there was a substantial public consultation in the last few months of 2009. It extends councils’ scrutiny powers to the next logical stage. It will enable scrutiny powers to cover a wide range of external bodies from the public and private sector. It will be a matter for future debate and for the Government as to which bodies are designated in the regulations. It will designate bodies that carry out activities which impact heavily on the day-to-day lives of local people.
The Bill enables more effective scrutiny of local public services. It does so by establishing a framework for broadening their scrutiny powers and extending them to cover a wider range of organisations. That means that in future, when undertaking their scrutiny function, councils will be less reliant on the voluntary co-operation of external organisations. Under the new regime the external bodies subject to scrutiny may be required by a local authority’s overview and scrutiny committee to provide information to the committee and to attend scrutiny meetings to answer questions. Both measures will help council scrutiny committees to be fully and properly informed. The external bodies will be required to respond to the scrutiny committee’s reports and to have regard to the recommendations.
The framework established by my Bill provides that bodies subject to the regime will be specified in future regulations, so decisions will be a matter for the Government, as has been mentioned, but the Bill enables the maximum reach and scope. I hope that the Government will be ambitious and imaginative in deciding which organisations will be specified in the regulations.
It always important to consider the potential effect of the enhanced regime on the bodies to be brought within it, and it will be vital to strike the right balance between enabling constructive and challenging scrutiny, while avoiding the process becoming overly time consuming or burdensome to the new bodies brought into the regime. Measures will be needed to ensure that the burdens are minimised and that operational independence is not compromised. My Bill recognises this. There will be new provisions to minimise burdens, duplication and effort, and to maximise the efficiency, effectiveness and benefits of constructive scrutiny.
In addition to the framework for the enhanced regime, the Bill recognises the increased importance of scrutiny as a key council function. It will require the council’s scrutiny officers to be fully and sufficiently resourced. We know that councils are now required to have a designated scrutiny officer. Across the country the number of councils with a designated team is quite small. In most councils the scrutiny function tends to be shared between a number of officers. The average number of officers engaged in scrutiny is currently about three, though obviously there is a wide range, reflecting the size of local authorities. My Bill’s provision to ensure that the scrutiny officer is sufficiently resourced will make a significant improvement and lead to greater quality and thoroughness in the scrutiny process.
The impact assessment published alongside the Bill indicates that the total cost of compliance on the new providers brought within the regime is likely to be less than £300,000 per annum. The cost of ensuring that scrutiny officers are properly resourced to do the job will be less than £4.5 million per annum and will be fully funded by the Department.
I shall refer briefly to some of the scrutiny work that my local authority, Bury metropolitan district council, has done in recent years. It is an authority without a dedicated team of officers. Nevertheless, it has adjusted to the new regime and started to get to grips with serious issues affecting the borough. It has built strong relationships with its partner providers, and it has a good track record on work on, for example, domestic violence, hard to reach young people, town centre safety, the future of the music service, safeguarding children, alcohol misuse and residential care. As the lead authority for the joint committee for the Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS Trust, my authority has contributed to a much larger review of dementia services, stroke services and health care-acquired infections.
I draw the attention of the House to the annual awards made by the Centre for Public Scrutiny—the good scrutiny awards. There is an impressive list of authorities that have won awards under different headings—for the best team, for financial scrutiny, for community engagement, and for scrutiny of health policy. This is the best example, which is available on the website of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, showing the range, depth and growing innovation in scrutiny processes.
There are probably four characteristics of good scrutiny, and my Bill will enhance all four. It is important that the scrutiny role adopts the approach of a critical friend. Scrutiny should not be hostile, aggressive or designed to subvert or destroy; it should, as I have said, act as a critical friend. Scrutiny must respond to and reflect genuine and deep public concerns; it cannot be arbitrary. It must be owned by people with an independent mind who are not subject to predetermined thinking on the issue that they investigate and scrutinise, and the object of scrutiny must be to drive improvement in public services.
In conclusion, I again thank all those who have contributed to the development and preparation of the Bill. It is based on principles that are now supported in all parts of the House, and it makes provision for new powers that build on those that have been agreed to in previous legislation. Those new powers are designed to improve the quality of public services through greater accountability in order to help renew public confidence in the local democratic process. I commend the Bill to the House.
The Opposition very much appreciate the Bill’s intention, which is to give councils much greater powers to scrutinise local public services. We all recognise that the delivery of those local public services has changed over time, and a variety of providers not just in the private sector but increasingly in the third sector now provide essential public services for local communities throughout the country. A local authority’s scrutiny functions are therefore a vital tool in promoting accountability and ensuring transparency in local decision making, and that allows local communities to become involved in the decisions that affect their daily lives. Given the importance of the powers that the Bill confers, and the Government’s previous commitments to introduce them, we are slightly concerned that the actual legislation before us is a private Member’s Bill. It appears to all intents and purposes to be a Government Bill.
Having said that, I turn to the broad sweep of the Bill, the intention behind which we support. We have some concerns about the wording of certain clauses, and before the Bill goes into Committee we would like to flag up those concerns so that Ministers and the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) take them on board and we have a more constructive debate in Committee.
Overview and scrutiny committees perform an important function, reviewing policy and performance and holding local public service providers to account. Currently, those committees have the power to require information from a range of organisations including councils, NHS bodies, law and order bodies and partner authorities that are involved in local area agreements. The committees can also summon representatives of most of those bodies to appear before them, and they can require such officials to respond to reports and recommendations that have been issued to them. However, that does not happen with all bodies—for example, partners that are involved in delivering local area agreement objectives. Indeed, many other local bodies are not required to submit to the same level of scrutiny by local authorities, so their voluntary participation in scrutiny is not guaranteed.
There is a growing recognition that overview and scrutiny committees need to have powers over a wider range of external organisations as they become more involved in local public services, and that councils should provide sufficient resources and support to those committees so that they can undertake more scrutiny.
The Bill seeks to address a number of issues, and we welcome its intention to increase local scrutiny powers. However, I want to flag up a number of concerns about how the Bill, as currently worded, will work in practice, so that in Committee we can have a proper debate about the range of challenges that the Bill poses. I shall quickly go through the Bill, clause by clause.
One of the most important measures in the Bill is the power to scrutinise a “designated person or authority”, and there are questions about how that designation will be defined. It would therefore be helpful if the Minister could either set out his views on the organisations that could come under the Bill’s designation or state whether he intends to publish a draft list of such bodies. That would be helpful, because many Members would then have a better idea of the Bill’s sweep.
The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) rightly raised not concern but his interest in understanding how broad the designation will be, because clause 1 is vague. Subsection (2) defines a matter “‘of local concern’”, but it does so relatively, stating:
“A matter is ‘of local concern’ in relation to a local authority only if it affects the authority’s area or the inhabitants of that area to a greater degree than it affects the areas of other local authorities or the inhabitants of other such areas.”
I am not clear about how that definition will work in practice, or about whether we actually want that provision.
First Capital Connect—my example—has seriously affected not only my constituents but those of all MPs all the way along the line, from Bedford down to the south coast. On that basis, the test to which the hon. Lady refers might not be met. However, that example would clearly meet the test of a matter of great local concern.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important practical example, demonstrating why we want the Bill to be improved and more tightly worded. The other obvious example is the post office closure programme, which was incredibly controversial in many local communities. It affected all local communities, including my own, but, based on clause 1 as drafted, it would not fall within the scope of an overview and scrutiny committee. The committee would not be able to question Post Office managers about the way its service proposals might affect local communities and businesses, and we have some concerns about that.
Clause 1 also includes the power to designate
“(a) generally, or
(b) in respect of services”.
Does the Minister feel that there is a danger of the designation becoming broader than necessary? We want to ensure that the Bill is effective, but that it does not become so broad that it ends up being cumbersome for all concerned. More clarity from the Minister would help our understanding of the clause’s breadth. Specifically, will regional development agencies be included? The hon. Member for Hendon is clearly concerned about transport providers, and many London MPs regard them as bodies providing public services that their local councillors may well want to scrutinise.
Once we have agreed which public service providers come under the designation, the next question is, what activities will be scrutinised? The Bill’s definition of a matter “of local concern” is vague, so will the issues that it covers be consistent with those that were outlined in the Department’s 2009 Green Paper, “Strengthening Local Democracy”? That document mentioned police strategies, fire and rescue authority plans, council delivery of education and wider issues that were not related to local area agreement targets. Given that the Bill follows on from that Green Paper, will it be consistent, to all intents and purposes, with that document’s list of issues?
The Department’s press notice on 1 February stated that the scrutiny arrangements “could” mean that service providers were held to account on issues “like” energy companies leaving repairs unfinished, station safety and facilities and the availability of rural bus services. Will the remit extend to local matters that have not occurred but might do, such as a potential post office closure, or a potential change? People are often concerned about such change before it occurs. Many local authorities will want to scrutinise decisions before they are taken, but the Bill restricts them to scrutinising decisions that have already been taken.
I shall move on, as I do not want to detain the House for too long. The Bill also covers the information that scrutiny committees can require from the relevant bodies and services. An appropriate representative can be required to appear before the committee to answer questions and the organisation can be required to reply to reports or recommendations. We see the merit in that.
Obviously, granting councils a full range of scrutiny powers over local bodies is a step in the right direction, but we need to be careful that the regulations brought in by the Secretary of State do not impose an excessive burden on organisations affected by the Bill. It would help if the Minister told us a little more about the breadth and formulation of those regulations. What criteria might the Secretary of State and the Minister use to determine any limits on these powers? Clause 3(1) talks about committees having information that they “reasonably” require; in Committee, it will be important to talk in more depth about what, in practice, that reasonableness test might be.
The impact assessment accompanying the Bill estimates that the private and public sectors could face an extra £285,000 and £35,000 respectively in compliance costs. Ministers must have made some sort of detailed assessment to come up with such figures, and I should like to know about that assessment in a bit more detail.
I deal now with the issue of having executive council members on the committee. I want to flag up a concern about that, as it seems to go against what Ministers were saying back in 2000, when they brought forward the more dramatic changes to the management of councils. The Bill starts to go back on the distinction between councillors involved in delivering policy and those involved in scrutiny. It would be helpful to hear a bit more about why the hon. Member for Bury, North and the Minister—the Government support the Bill—feel that that is a good move and is worth doing. Will it not undermine the overall structure of accountability, which has proved useful to many local councils? The Centre for Policy Studies was previously concerned that the involvement of executive councils in the scrutiny process would blur the lines between the two functions.
I want to mention scrutiny within councils and the cost to local authorities. Clause 9 requires that officers should be provided with
“such staff, accommodation and other resources”
as are determined by the officer to be sufficient to discharge their functions. The Local Government Association has said that it wants to be left with the ability to make local decisions about how to ensure that scrutiny is well supported within its local authorities. The explanatory notes said that the new powers could cost local authorities £4.5 million, and I am sure that the Minister will confirm that that will come out of their existing budgets.
Given the constraints on local authority budgets at the moment, it is particularly important that local authorities be able to make their own decisions about how they want to ensure that councillors involved in scrutiny can scrutinise well. For many councils, that may well mean more of a focus on developing the councillors’ skill sets rather than having support for them. To my mind, that would be no bad thing at all, although it would not necessarily mean the approach to scrutiny and its resourcing that is set out in the Bill, which is too prescriptive in many respects.
The 2008 Centre for Policy Studies survey of local government scrutiny found that there was a slight negative trend in the size of allocated discretionary budgets for scrutiny. Clearly, there is a change of approach among local authorities in respect of resourcing scrutiny. It is important that we work with them to find out how they feel it can best be delivered.
My last point is about joint committees, and I want to issue a challenge to the Minister. The Bill talks about joint overview and scrutiny committees. As I am sure the Minister is aware, those were enacted, as it were, in January this year, but the regulations to enable them to come into being with the powers given by last year’s Bill have not gone through Parliament. Given that, technically, the committees do not yet exist, it seems a bit presumptuous that this Bill should extend their powers further. Will the Minister enlighten the House on when those regulations will pass through Parliament, so that joint overview and scrutiny committees can be properly established?
Broadly, we believe that the Bill could move the quality of scrutiny at the local level in the right direction, so we shall not stand in its way. We have some concerns, which I have begun to outline, about the wording and breadth of clauses and how effective they may prove. However, we look forward to working with the Government and the hon. Member for Bury, North in Committee. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
At the outset, I should declare a non-remunerated interest: I am the chairman of the Centre for Public Scrutiny. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) for his kind remarks about the centre’s work and the support that it has given him in preparing the Bill.
I very much welcome the Bill and congratulate my hon. Friend on his choice of subject. All of us in the House are aware of the importance of scrutiny in achieving a range of different objectives. First, it advances good government, on the simple principle that an executive is always kept more on its toes if its activities are properly scrutinised, whether in local government, here or anywhere else. Secondly, scrutiny is a way of identifying opportunities for doing things better—finding innovative ways of tackling problems or saving money by achieving objectives in a more cost-effective way. That has been demonstrated across a range of different scrutiny activities at both central and local government levels. Thirdly, scrutiny can help to identify areas where we could ensure better co-ordination between different agencies, all of which have a role in the delivery of public services. That, of course, is very much the focus of the Bill.
As we all know, we have a long tradition of scrutiny here, but the tradition in local government is much shorter. My hon. Friend has highlighted the progress since the Local Government Act 2000 in the extension of scrutiny and scrutiny powers in local government, including the extension to cover other functions such as policing and health, which has been enacted by subsequent legislation. The Bill is an important further step along the route of extending and embedding the principle of good scrutiny at a local level. I very much welcome it.
The extension of the powers to require evidence and to require people in certain circumstances to appear in front of a scrutiny committee is important. There is anecdotal evidence that in some cases local authorities seeking to scrutinise have found it difficult to secure the attendance of partners or other local authorities with a significant role in the delivery of public services; they have been reluctant to submit themselves to local authority scrutiny. In my view, it is absolutely right that the additional powers should be provided.
At the same time, it is right that the way the legislation is drafted should not seek to impose too prescriptive an approach. One of the strengths of the way scrutiny has developed in local government has been the capacity of individual authorities to be innovative and try approaches slightly different from those of their neighbours. We should continue to encourage that; we should allow the greatest possible flexibility and freedom for authorities to develop not only their own scrutiny functions, but joint scrutiny activities with other authorities and the scrutiny of their partners in innovative ways.
We need to think much more about how to disseminate good practice. My hon. Friend was kind enough to refer to the Centre for Public Scrutiny’s annual scrutiny awards and the focus that they are intended to give to spreading good practice and highlighting examples of innovative work by local authorities, on the basis that others should learn from that.
I support all that, but there is a curious gap in the process as far as we in the House are concerned. For all the talk of better scrutiny, I can see no evidence whatever of any Select Committees entering into joint scrutiny functions with local scrutiny committees or seeing the scope for using the evidence that emerges from local scrutiny to support or underpin their work. It is surprising that we operate in two separate silos—central and local government. We are not exploring the scope for better joint working to the extent that we should. Although Select Committees are not covered by the Bill, I hope that in our consideration of the principle of bringing together different public authorities responsible for delivering services and of the impact they have on a particular area, which is very much part of the Bill, we will also consider how we can bring together the scrutiny functions of our Select Committees and those of local authority scrutiny committees and learn from each other’s good practice.
Both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) mentioned resources for scrutiny, and I endorse the view that the scrutiny function has to be properly resourced. That is clearly a difficult ask at a time when public funding is under considerable pressure, but it is a false economy to believe that we can cut back on that function, which is a very small part of total local authority budgets, and not have adverse consequences. The potential loss from less efficient scrutiny will be felt over time through less efficient services, as old and perhaps outmoded practices are allowed to continue longer than they should because they are not challenged, as the scope for making savings by doing things better is not identified and as the scope for different public authorities to work better together to make savings in public expenditure is not picked up. It would be a wholly false economy to cut back on scrutiny expenditure at the present time as a way of saving money, because it represents a very small proportion of total local government spending and it is important that the scrutiny function is handled well.
The context of Total Place, an important current initiative, makes that all the more important. Through it we are beginning to understand the scale of total public investment in individual areas. If there is good scrutiny in parallel with that, it will surely help to ensure that we indentify areas in which resources could be better used and those in which there is scope for savings. That seems to me a fertile area for good scrutiny in future.
I welcome the Bill, and there are only two elements of it that I have reservations about, which I shall highlight before I conclude. The first is the exclusion of district councils in two-tier areas. The Local Government Association has raised this issue. I can understand the argument about the need to avoid unnecessary duplication, but excluding district councils entirely is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Surely it would be better to have a protocol arrangement to ensure that there was no duplication. If a district council in a two-tier area intended to set up scrutiny of a wider range of other authorities, it should first be required to consult the county council and other district councils. There should also be an obligation to set up a joint scrutiny committee or to work in collaboration to avoid the problem of duplication. That seems to me a much better approach than simply debarring district councils from being involved in the scrutiny in question in two-tier areas.
Secondly, clause 8(3) raises a difficult constitutional issue. Proposed new section 21(9A)(a) of the Local Government Act 2000 would allow executive members to be members of scrutiny committees, provided that they were not scrutinising the executive itself. The hon. Member for Putney raised that concern. I believe that when she looks at the Hansard reference, she will see that she referred to the Centre for Policy Studies. I guess that her brief said “CPS”—I think she meant the Centre for Public Scrutiny.
I am grateful for her kind reference to it. It is concerned about the matter, as am I, because there is a slippery slope and an erosion of the principle of the separation of powers between scrutiny and executive. If that is damaged, it could have serious consequences for the integrity of the scrutiny function. It could well also create a difficult relationship between executive members and people in outside bodies if the latter were talking to them as partners one day and subject to scrutiny by them the next. The partners themselves would not have the option of scrutinising the working of the executive. It is unfair to outside bodies that need to work in partnership with executive members of local authorities to be subject to scrutiny by them as well. For that reason, as well as that of the separation of powers, I do not believe that we should go down that route. I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North, and the Minister to have a further look at that.
My final observation is that we frequently hear from local government the complaint that back-bench members of local authorities, whose role is essentially scrutiny, are not accorded the same status and standing as executive members. Frankly, anything that we can do to boost the morale and status of back-bench and scrutiny members is good, and we certainly should not erode it by stating that executive members can sit on scrutiny committees as well. I hope that that will be reconsidered.
With those few reservations, I give my strong support to the Bill. It will help to take forward the process of scrutiny in local government and the search for more effective delivery of public services when a range of bodies are involved. I wish it every success and support its principles.
First, I welcome the comments of the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) and endorse pretty much everything that he said. I will not repeat it, because he put it extremely effectively and has a great deal of knowledge in this area.
My broad position is that I very much welcome the Bill. It makes real some of the issues covered by Total Place, which the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) referred to. It seems to me that a core function of local council representatives is to raise issues of concern to their community. The scrutiny process is a very effective way of doing that, and the Bill will provide them with some real authority in that process. For those reasons, I wish it well and the Liberal Democrats will support it.
I have one issue to raise, which I have touched on, and it is one of principle. We are discussing scrutiny, and the role of the House is to scrutinise the Bill. The fundamental question is which bodies are to be scrutinised, and it does not specify that. We can examine the Government’s consultation, which lists the type of organisations that it believes may be subject to scrutiny, but we have no confirmation that they will. Nor do we have any real idea of whether that is the final list or whether it is to be extended much further.
Even if the current Minister were to outline his intentions in relation to which bodies will be covered, a future Minister might come to a different view. The matter would have to come back to the House and be subject to debate, but we all know that the processes of resolution here are brief, that not many Members are involved and that generally speaking, whatever the Government want goes through. That is the reality of the process. It is a real shame that we have not been given that information for today’s debate, and I hope that it can be brought to us in Committee. When legislation is brought before the House, it helps when Ministers talk about what they believe will fall within its scope, because that gives direction on what might happen in future and arms any future colleagues—not me, but there might be others—who challenge exemptions in the regulations or elements that might be missing, by giving them a clear steer at this stage in the legislative process. The hon. Member for Bury, North has done a great job in bringing the Bill forward, but I hope that he will seek clarity from the Minister and the Department on that point, and that the Minister will give it—if not today, then in Committee.
I should also apologise, because I have a brief engagement that I have not been able to get out of, so I shall be escaping in a moment. I might not be here for the reply to this debate, but my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) will be. That is a discourtesy to the House, but I am afraid that it is not one that I can avoid.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) on his success in the ballot and on all the effort that he has put into bringing forward his proposals.
I also thank all the other Members who have taken part in this debate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) is an acknowledged expert on the issue, as he is on so many other local government matters, and not just because of his distinguished ministerial career, but because of his career before he entered the House and his work with the Centre for Public Scrutiny, for example. I thank the hon. Members for Putney (Justine Greening) and for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) for the constructive, detailed and expert analysis that they have brought to bear on the issue. I also thank the hon. Lady for her constructive and non-partisan tone in discussing the proposals.
I am pleased to confirm that the Government support the Local Authorities (Overview and Scrutiny) Bill, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North has introduced. His proposals are in line with some of those set out by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in the “Strengthening local democracy” consultation, published in July last year. The Bill provides the framework to extend the reach and influence of local authority scrutiny further. My hon. Friend set out what the Bill does in practical terms. I do not intend to repeat what he said, but I shall try to respond to some of the points made in the debate.
As my hon. Friend said, there is an increasing appetite for more localised and personalised services, greater transparency and more accountability. Consumers know more about the services that they want to be provided with. They expect greater responsiveness and higher quality, and they have every right to do so. My hon. Friend’s proposals attempt to answer the increased demand for accountability, and ensure probity over the use of public resources and equity in access and opportunity. Local government is a major route through which the voice and interests of local people, through their elected representatives, can be brought to bear on the national and local institutions that provide local services.
People expect their council to be at the heart of decision making in the area—the one place that they ought to be able to go for information on the full range of services provided, and the place to which they can look to influence decisions on how those services are delivered. When people vote, they should be confident that they are electing someone who will take a real interest in those issues locally and act on their behalf. The council’s scrutiny function is one way of delivering that accountability locally.
The new powers will extend scrutiny to a wider range of bodies to address cross-cutting issues locally to best effect, and will provide local authorities with greater expertise and more information. In the first instance we intend to apply the new framework to existing local area agreement partner bodies. That will remove the current limitation on the scrutiny of activities related to LAA matters only, recognising that the local contribution and activities of partner bodies—such as Jobcentre Plus, and fire and rescue authorities, to name just two—cut across the full range of local issues that arise, and are not limited to the delivery of priority targets in the LAA. We also intend to extend scrutiny to two new sectors: energy and transport.
We recognise, as we did when scrutiny was first extended to cover LAA partners, that those who will become subject to scrutiny for the first time might have concerns about what that will mean for them in practice. They will want to know how much time it will take up, how much it will cost and whether they will be required to attend hundreds of scrutiny hearings across the country. We understand those concerns, and that is why we intend to use the regulation-making powers in the Bill to put in place safeguards and procedures to ensure that the exercise of the new powers by councils does not impose a disproportionate burden on bodies that are subject to scrutiny.
My experience as a councillor in Dudley in the 1990s left me with firm views on the vital role that well-informed, fully engaged councillors can play as champions of their community and the residents they serve. At their best, councillors are out and about in the communities that they represent; local, available and in touch; talking to local people; engaged with community groups and voluntary organisations; understanding in detail the services provided in their wards—truly in touch with local people. That is the sort of councillor that local communities need if greater scrutiny is to work effectively, because local scrutiny will be at its best when led by councillors who have their finger firmly on the local pulse and when driven by local people to examine the issues that matter to them. For those councillors sitting on scrutiny committees, the new powers are therefore significant.
However, with additional power comes greater responsibility, because scrutiny is not about confrontation or criticism for the sake of it, but about constructive debate and challenge where necessary. It is not about taking over all local services or being a substitute decision taker for external bodies, but about influencing the decision-making process and ensuring that decisions are properly informed and properly taken. Scrutiny is about contributing positively to policy development across the full range of services, bringing partners from all sectors together to ensure that residents are getting the best deal. In recent years the council scrutiny function has taken on a higher profile, and is now used not just to increase openness and transparency, but to improve the services that residents receive. Councillors and scrutiny committees should engage with local people to ensure that scrutiny looks at the issues that matter and to select topics for review so as to ensure that they scrutinise the subjects that local people are concerned about.
The hon. Member for Putney raised issues of cost, as did all right hon. and hon. Members who spoke. Let me try to deal with some of those. An impact assessment has been prepared on the basis of local authorities continuing to work within their existing budgets and therefore continuing, as at present, to prioritise issues of local concern for scrutiny and review. We therefore do not consider part 1 of the Bill to have any major financial implications for local authorities. Any increased cost arising from part 1 will instead be limited to the additional compliance costs on external bodies undergoing scrutiny, in providing information to committees or attending meetings, for example. The Government estimate that the increased annual compliance costs could be up to £480,000 each year, with up to £427,000 falling on private sector bodies and up to £53,000 falling on public sector bodies.
The Bill also includes provision for scrutiny resources. Section 21ZA of the Local Government Act 2000 requires local authorities to designate one of their officers as scrutiny officer. That officer’s functions are to promote the role of the authority’s overview and scrutiny committee or committees; provide support to such committees; and provide guidance and support to members and officers of the authority, and members of the authority’s executive, in relation to the functions of overview and scrutiny committees.
The Bill will require local authorities to provide their designated scrutiny officers with such staff, accommodation and other resources as they consider sufficient to discharge their functions. That mirrors the provision for monitoring officers in the Local Government and Housing Act 1989. The new requirement might result in additional costs for some authorities—costs that the Government estimate will amount to no more than £4.5 million each year. The Government are committed to ensuring that any new burden falling on local authorities is funded. The cost will therefore be fully and properly funded by the Government, so that no additional pressure is placed on council tax bills.
As I said earlier, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State believes that the Bill takes forward key proposals of the “Strengthening local democracy” consultation and will provide a flexible framework to enable councillors to scrutinise a wider range of bodies and improve the services that residents receive.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to this debate. When I spoke about the all-party consensus on the need for more decentralisation and localism, and more transparency and accountability, I could not have imagined that that would be so perfectly reflected in the various contributions that have been made. Things have moved on significantly in recent years, in terms of the main parties’ attitudes towards local government and their agreement on certain key principles.
I thank the Minister for clarifying so many points of detail and for giving an honest and direct indication of the Government’s thinking on how certain regulations might be implemented.
The hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) was exercised by the issue of the list of new bodies and agencies not being included in the Bill. A large number of bodies and agencies were mentioned during the debate, and there would not necessarily be consensus at this stage that all of them should be included in the list of designated bodies. That provides the best case for leaving this matter to be set out in regulations. I accept fully, however, that that would place the matter completely in the hands of this Government or a future Government. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will take on board the suggestion by the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) that a draft list be published in advance of the regulations. That would provide time for further debate and consultation, and for the building of consensus.
Let me make it clear that I was not necessarily suggesting that the list should appear on the face of the Bill. I accept that consultation needs to take place and that the timing might not work in that regard. I also accept that such a list could be over-restrictive. I hope that the Minister will listen to what the hon. Gentleman has just said on this point. A draft list put out to consultation would allow proper scrutiny and a debate on what was appropriate.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point extremely well. I am sure that the Minister will have listened carefully to it.
The hon. Member for Putney made a number of detailed points. She called for further clarification and raised questions about definition, all of which were important and many of which can be discussed further in Committee. My right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) drew two important points to the attention of the House. He mentioned the potential conflict of interest involved in dismantling the separation of powers, and the implications for the role of executive members. Parliament is not in a position to insist on an absolute separation of powers in local government because we ourselves do not have, and have never had, an absolute separation of powers. There is a case, however, in specific instances involving certain subjects of inquiry, for allowing executive members to be members of the scrutiny panels.
Furthermore, many local authorities are now revising the original model of scrutiny panels, which involved one executive committee and any number of scrutiny panels. They are setting up special sub-committees, special working parties and special task and finish groups. The expertise of an executive member on a specific task and finish group, which bears no relationship to his executive functions, could prove to be extremely useful. I accept completely, however, that this matter needs to be explored further. The question of district councils in two-tier areas was raised. I believe that there is ample scope for those smaller district councils to work co-operatively with their county councils and to set up joint structures of one kind or another.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to the debate, and I am grateful that the House has achieved this consensus. I look forward to the Bill’s progress into Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).
Anti-Slavery Day Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to raise a matter that I am sure will have the support of the whole House. I am grateful to see so many hon. Friends and hon. Members here today who have been enormously supportive of my campaign to draw attention to the extent of human trafficking in this country.
As I have a little time, I shall make a little speech. I hope that it will be helpful to the House to reflect that William Wilberforce headed the parliamentary campaign in this House against the British slave trade for 26 years before the Slave Trade Act was passed in 1807. His later campaign resulted in the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, which—it was thought—abolished slavery in most of the British empire. Today, however, more than twice as many people are in bondage around the world than were taken in chains during the entire 350 years of the African slave trade. Despite the abolition of slavery, modern forms of trading in human beings continue, whether for sexual exploitation, forced labour, domestic slavery or organised crime.
It is impossible to gauge the numbers involved in human trafficking, because the crime takes place unseen and undetected. It is often not identified, or, in other cases, mis-identified. However, a conservative estimate puts the number of trafficked victims in the world at any one time at 800,000. That is the figure from the United Nations. We also know that human trafficking affects every region of the world, and that it generates tens of billions of dollars in profits for criminals each year. It is now apparently the second largest and second most lucrative criminal activity after drugs. It has jumped up the list, year after year.
In the United Kingdom, many thousands of individuals are bought and sold as commodities and forced into modern-day slavery. This is commonly known as human trafficking. A little later in my speech, I propose to tell the House of the devastating experience that I had yesterday, when I met a girl who had been trafficked into the UK and treated unbelievably badly. The experience is red hot in my memory, and I shall share it with the House in a moment. The Home Affairs Select Committee’s report last year suggested that at least 100,000 people were trafficked into the EU each year. That figure is from the European Commission.
Today, in the UK, the majority of indentified victims are women and girls. They come from poor, unstable countries where there are few opportunities for education or employment. Eastern Europe continues to be a fruitful source of women trafficked into this country. In fact, if we look at the map of Europe, we can see that the former communist countries of eastern Europe are the source countries of women and children coming into the more prosperous western countries. Denmark, Holland, Britain, France, Spain and Italy are the countries that receive these women from the source countries—Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and Moldova, among others.
The evidence of convicted traffickers suggests that the worst offenders in the trafficking business are Albanians, Romanians, Russians and those in the Balkans; they are in the lead in people trafficking. We might not get the numbers immediately, but they are considerable. We are talking about tens of thousands of traffickers who are part of this criminal network.
Trafficked children are highly vulnerable in their home country, as we have seen in Haiti recently, and they might already have been exploited and abused before they are targeted by traffickers. Victims can be deceived by false promises of opportunity or coerced into working in slave-like conditions. In some of the really poor eastern European countries, there is absolutely no work, no opportunity and no hope for many of the young people living there. I know this from my experience in Chernavoda in Romania, where the girls and boys leave school at 14 or 15, and there is nothing for them to do. The boys tend to become pimps, and the girls tend to be trafficked or become prostitutes. That is not a way of life that we would accept, but in towns and counties such as those—which have no opportunities, even though they are in the EU—the girls and boys have terrible lives at a very young age.
Some of the women I have met have been sold by their parents. I met a girl of 21 in Rome who had been sold by her parents to her uncle for £5,000 in Albania. She was on the streets in Rome at 16. I have met her, I know her and I know her problems. I have spoken to her through interpreters over many days. This is not an academic problem; it is very real. The street value for a 15-year-old girl, as long as she is a virgin, it is between £8,000 and £12,000—that is the money exchanged to buy somebody. The price of a woman goes down dramatically with age; when she reaches 30, she is worth only £500. These people are treated like second-hand cars; they are traded in the same way.
At a conservative estimate, there are at least 5,000 trafficked victims into the UK each year, and the Home Office states that approximately 360 children are trafficked into and within the UK each year. There are wild remarks about the figures really being as high as 25,000. There could be that number—we do not really know—but I suspect that the Home Office conservative estimate is probably more like it.
Women victims are forced to work—many against their will—in brothels, saunas, massage parlours and private houses; children, other than those who are sexually exploited, are, like Fagin’s children, on the streets. As you will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am fortunate enough to be involved in the parliamentary police scheme, which has allowed me to concentrate on seeing human trafficking first hand in London with the Met. In fact, I think that I am the oldest policeman on the street; I have been working in the off-the-street Marble Arch area and met a number of trafficked children.
Over the last two years, I have been on police raids and seen children at 6 o’clock in the morning who are just being prepared for their work during the day. Of 1,017 children, most are known to the police, many of them are under 10, so prosecutions cannot be launched. Some have been identified as shoplifters and pick-pockets—those are their tricks of the trade—but the biggest category is automated teller machine theft. I am told by the police superintendent in charge of the Operation Roma—no, I mean Operation Golf, although it is concerned with Roma children—that a really clever child can earn traffickers up to £80,000 a year.
Forced labour on farms and the land is another category. This is just becoming a visible issue, thanks to the work of the UK Human Trafficking Centre, which the Home Office supports. It is also finding that large numbers of men involved in work similar to that of the Chinese cockle pickers are living in the most appalling dormitory-like conditions. They are paid virtually nothing, having been duped into believing that if they gave £3,000 or £5,000 to the traffickers, they would secure a very good job in Britain. Construction workers and those involved in the hospitality and care industries are other groups that are currently exempt from the Gangmaster Licensing Authority controls.
The number of women in domestic slavery continues to grow. Many hundreds are identified each year as suffering abuse. This is particularly true of those employed by foreign nationals in the consular service of their own country in the UK. The worst cases of abuse apply to those who are effectively held prisoner in their employer’s home, receive no pay and are expected to be available seven days a week. What is particularly significant here is that all these domestic slaves have their passports removed. Many of them do not speak English. The idea of their escaping, which to us would be normal, is impossible for them even to contemplate. They are working in the homes of consular diplomats in Britain and are treated as slaves. As I say, their passports are removed—an issue I discussed with the Minister in connection with the all-party trafficking of women and children group; I would like to thank him for his sympathetic and understanding approach to this problem.
As an aside, anyone coming here as a domestic worker—one of the 18,500 people granted domestic visas every year—is able to move to another employer if the present employer treats them badly, but anyone working with a visa for the diplomatic or consular service cannot move. All they can do is go back home, which is difficult for people from third-world or poor countries or from some of the middle east countries because the problem is that if they go back, they then get marked as people who have fallen out with their consular service. Many girls in these circumstances are trapped in the kitchens of the consular service, living there seven days a week and having to sleep in the kitchen as well. The conditions are very bad.
Human traffickers use many physical and psychological techniques to control their victims, including the use of violence or threats of violence against the victim or the victim’s family, leading to isolation from the public, isolation from the victim’s family and the community. There is a language and cultural barrier; there is shame and control of the victim’s possessions; and there are confiscations of passports, as I mentioned, and other identification documents. There are constant threats of arrest, deportation or imprisonment if the victim attempts to reach out for assistance or to leave.
Not all policemen are trained or are aware of the trafficking phenomenon. In this country, thanks to the rising profile of this issue, that understanding is getting better. This is one of the reasons why I believe we need a national anti-slavery day to make people more aware. In many countries of the world, particularly in eastern Europe, there is tremendous corruption among the police and the border guards. Money is passing between gangs and the police and border guards, which makes it difficult for these trafficked people to get a sympathetic or responsible response from the authorities when they turn to them for help.
The POPPY project in London is a shelter project given considerable funding by the Home Office, to which I pay tribute for its foresight in this matter. It offers practical help towards that project. I have been greatly assisted by the Minister and his predecessors, as well as by non-governmental agencies that receive Government support. It is to their credit that much of the work of the all-party group has made such progress. Between March 2003 and April 2009, the POPPY project received 1,233 trafficked women—a large number—over the age of 18. The POPPY project does not take in any girl under 18; that is for the local authorities to deal with through their care home services. The POPPY project is a very professional and extremely skilled organisation. Although I have occasionally had one or two problems with it, I none the less recognise the invaluable help it gives to trafficked victims.
Not only has it dealt with 1,233 referrals of trafficked women over 18, but it has also dealt with 200 to 300 victims of trafficking for domestic slavery. The non-governmental organisation known as Kalayaan, to which I also pay tribute, is run by some dedicated younger people. Domestic slaves have been able to seek its help in coping with the terrible problems they have gaining justice and recognition of how they are treated. I pay tribute again to Kalayaan and other NGOs for tackling domestic slavery and raising awareness of it.
POPPY has long-term Government funding for 54 safe accommodation beds for victims of sexual exploitation or domestic slavery. It is important to note that those beds are full. When I tried to get a girl trafficked for domestic slavery—this was a bad case—into POPPY, I was told that it was full. I would not have it; it managed to find an additional space. However, this is the only official body in London; none is officially established in other towns. If we established similar centres in other major cities, I am sure that they, too, would be full. There is a much bigger problem in this country than I would like to admit. It is going underground, so we will find it only if we provide shelters for these very unfortunate people. There is shortage of shelter in a country that has proved to become a magnet for traffickers.
ECPAT UK—End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children—co-ordinates a coalition working for the protection of children’s rights, including Anti-Slavery International, Jubilee Campaign, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Save the Children UK, the Children’s Society, UNICEF UK, and World Vision UK. According to ECPAT—which, incidentally, does very good work for the all-party group—about 60 per cent. of suspected child victims in local authority care go missing and are not subsequently found. Unlike POPPY, which caters for those over 18, local authority care homes cater for the under-18s. They have no security, because if bars were installed, those in charge would be accused of running a prison. Children go into the homes and then disappear. In May 2009, The Guardian disclosed that a report by the UK Borders Agency had revealed that since March 2006 at least 77 trafficked children had gone missing from a home operated by the London borough of Hillingdon—presumably the Heathrow outlet.
I spent some time at Gatwick with the all-party group. I pay tribute to Lady Butler-Sloss, one of the vice-chairmen of the group, who accompanied me to Gatwick to study what was happening there. We found that the children who arrived at the airport from China, Vietnam and other countries were quite well trained. Many arrived without a passport. How had they got on to the plane at the other end? Either they had chewed the passport during the journey so that by the time they arrived at Gatwick there was no passport left, or they had put it down the loo. Alternatively, they had travelled via another country, and ended up not at Gatwick but at Bristol or Manchester.
These children then claim asylum. They cannot do much else. Once they have used the word “asylum”—if they do not speak another language—they are shunted into a children’s home such as the one in Hillingdon, near Heathrow. They have a mobile phone, or they have been told where they will be going. The traffickers are very much ahead of the game, whereas we are really quite pedestrian.
Once the children have arrived at the home, they disappear within hours. Manchester’s director of social work, who co-ordinates social workers, says that the pattern is well established. The social workers are in difficulties. They cannot apprehend the children, and, once they have gone missing, there is no track of them. No one knows who they are. They may come from China or Vietnam, and we know that the Vietnamese will end up managing cannabis factories, but there are many children in this country whose identity and whereabouts are unknown to us. They could have been murdered, and we would not even know.
Between 1 April and 31 December 2009, 527 potential victims of human trafficking were referred through what is known as the national referral mechanism, a new mechanism established under the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings which provides a way of identifying trafficked people. That is done by the UK Border Agency and the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre. At least 145 of those referred between April and December were children. Since 1 April, accommodation and support has been provided for 68 people identified as victims of trafficking. Between 1 May 2004 and 22 October 2009, 118 people were convicted of trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, and seven were convicted of labour trafficking.
I do not think that those figures are good enough. What is the problem? The problem is that first the police must find victims, and then the victims must be prepared to give evidence against their traffickers, who have been brutal to them. The victims, however, fear that if they do give evidence, their families back home will be threatened. I shall describe a case history in a moment, because we have a little time—although I know we have not too much time, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The traffickers do, in fact, threaten not only the mothers of the girls involved but, much more significant, their sisters and brothers.
Because the victims do not want to give evidence, the police cannot really prosecute. They certainly cannot prosecute for human trafficking. It is to the credit of the Director of Public Prosecutions that he seems to be moving into the right gear. It has taken him some time, but I hope that he is now moving out of the first gear and into the second and third, because we need to speed things up. The traffickers need to be arrested, not just for trafficking but for all the other offences that they may be committing. We are very slow in this regard. Far more traffickers have been apprehended in Romania. Italy is particularly good, and Austria even better. If we are to make this country an unfriendly and unhelpful place for traffickers, as the Prime Minister has said repeatedly that he wishes to do, we must be much sharper about apprehending them and ensuring that judges give them really awful sentences, which they often do not do at present.
I recently visited a high-security prison in Bucharest. There were many hundreds of traffickers behind bars, both men and women. It is not only men who are traffickers. There is usually a man and his assistant, who is a woman. They are a unit—an item. The woman goes to prison so that the man can continue his work as a pimp or an organiser of trafficked people. I met a number of women in that prison who were doing time for the men with whom they were living.
Many eastern European countries, having thrown off the yoke of communism, went in quite the opposite direction. The free market and criminal gangs moved in quickly to seize new opportunities, and the police and the border agencies have become tied up with criminal mafiosa activity. Last August, an article in The Times reported the rise of systematic trafficking of children in the United Kingdom by foreign criminals to defraud the British benefit system. I was involved in identifying that activity when I accompanied the police on raids in east and north London. I wish they would not start so early in the morning!
During an operation in August, the police found evidence of one suspected crime involving more than £100,000, including a backdated cheque for £24,000 paid to a family by the Benefits Agency. In another case involving trafficked children, a gang is believed to have forged documents for the purpose of at least 500 claims worth £4.5 million. In all, some £300 million is thought to be involved in benefit frauds.
Let me explain how the system works. These people are European Union nationals. A couple will bring in perhaps three or four children claiming that they are theirs, sometimes with forged passports. Ultimately, eight to 11 children may be found living in the same house. A house that I visited during a police raid in east London conveyed no sense that it had been lived in other than by the nine or 10 children—in one instance, there were 12—sleeping on the floors with rugs, upstairs and downstairs. It was quite a Dickensian picture. They were ready to leave at a moment’s notice, because they were aware that the police were circling.
We arrived soon after 6 am. Having lived under the communists, the people in the house were used to the arrival of authorities such as the police. They had all their documents, with them, beautifully prepared. There was not one possession that was not packed into a bag. It is likely that we had arrived the day before they were due to leave: such people move on constantly. We found letters from a fake company, probably Romanian or Bulgarian, inviting the “owner” of the children to work for him as a scrap metal dealer. Once he had been here for a year, he would be able to claim benefits for the children. We took a number of children back to the station, along with their parents or, in some cases, their uncles and aunts.
If you go to Slough railway station first thing in the morning, you will see gangs of kids turning up and waiting for instructions. All these things are happening in this country, and they are visible to those who know where to look. Taken together, they form a picture which some of the more intelligent and interested police officers are identifying as the involvement of kids in human trafficking.
Thanks to the Minister and the Home Office, they are beginning to realise the significance of this, but their approach to it needs to be better focused.
To the escalating problem of children trafficking and benefit fraud, one must add what is happening in the cannabis trade. This problem is not peculiar to Britain, but we seem to be ahead of the game in recognising it. In Britain, we have Vietnamese children tending plants in terraced houses on the outskirts of our large towns. I do not want to mention specific areas of London, but this is happening in all the suburbs, in what look like normal houses. A couple who are part of a gang rent the house, paying cash. To anyone glancing through the front window, the interior looks like an ordinary drawing room, but upstairs there is a cannabis factory. They have ripped out the electrics and the water meters, and they have put in high wattage bulbs, so that the rooms are very hot, and in them, cannabis plants are being tended by young Vietnamese boys, who understand how to do so.
Let us talk about numbers. The first investigation into cannabis factories was undertaken in 2004, so we have known about this problem for about six years, and 850 factories were found. According to recent police intelligence, 2,200 cannabis factories have now been uncovered in Britain, and a sizeable number of Vietnamese boys have been rescued, and other people have been prosecuted. There are up to 300 cannabis factories in London alone. Every time the police raid one, another one pops up, and even the next-door neighbours do not know about it, because to them it merely appears that a nice Vietnamese couple are living quite normally in the adjacent suburban house.
Human trafficking is everywhere. It is not just in the cities. Let us consider the case of a 19-year-old Czech woman who was flown into Bristol airport believing she would work in a gym or a similar environment; she mentioned a four-star hotel in Paignton—I think we have only one of them. She came through immigration control at the airport perfectly legally, as she is from the Czech Republic. Someone collected her from the airport, and she then found herself in a small private brothel on the edge of my constituency in south Devon—as I have said, this is not just an inner-city problem. She was appalled to discover that she had been placed in this situation. That night, five men assaulted her. She tried to escape—she ran out at about 4 o’clock in the morning. It so happened that somewhere in Paignton was open at that time—a nightclub. The traffickers had chased her, but she grabbed hold of the bar and refused to move. Thanks to the responsible nature of the nightclub owner, the police were called.
We must give credit to the Devon and Cornwall constabulary. It is not used to handling trafficking cases, but it took this case on and dealt with it magnificently, arresting the two Czech women running the brothel. Nobody knew about its existence; it was in the constituency of the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), but he did not know about it either.
The girl agreed to give evidence against the traffickers, and she was returned to the Czech Republic. The police had to pay for that; because the Home Office will not cover such costs for an EU national, the police had to find the money out of their own funds. As she had agreed to give evidence, the two women who had been running the brothel agreed to plead guilty and were sentenced. However, although I mean no disrespect to the judge, I must say that he gave a really rather weak sentence. The judiciary, as well as the police, need to be trained to realise that trafficking is part of the scenery in this country and that it needs to be severely punished.
People trafficking is, in essence, about people being forced to do things against their will. Victims are deceived or duped into a situation that is not what it at first appeared to be. It is the criminal world misleading, using or exploiting the most vulnerable, the poorest and the most uneducated people for gain. It is all about pounds and euros. It is a wicked practice that people thought had died a death in the 1800s, when Wilberforce passed his legislation in this place. It has not died a death, however. There is now a new, more virulent, form of it in this country. That is confirmed by Home Office research, which estimates that the total social and economic cost of trafficking was £1 billion in 2003, so we are talking about a sizeable sum of money.
To combat human trafficking in the UK and globally, the British people, Parliament, local government, our other institutions and quangos, and the private as well as the public sector must be made aware of the realities of human trafficking and must be dedicated to stopping this contemporary manifestation of slavery. That is my principal purpose in proposing an anti-slavery day.
I do not want to speak for too long, but neither do I want to lose this opportunity to talk about this subject, as this may be one of my last speeches in this place. I want to give an account of a case I addressed yesterday with a firm of solicitors. It is an utterly horrific story that illustrates the points that I have been making. The name of the girl involved and her whereabouts will be kept secret, but I can say that she exists and she lives in London at a secret address. For the purposes of her story, I shall call her Gabriella. She was 20 when she was found, but she was trafficked from Moldova at 14. She was forced into prostitution at the age of 14, and did not finally escape until she was 20. She has been through so many horrific experiences in so many countries during that time that she cannot remember the exact dates and details of everything that happened.
When Gabriella was 14, she went for a picnic in the forest with her best friend and two older men in their late teens. When they were in the forest eating their picnic, Gabriella was very aware that the young men were using their mobile phones, and she overheard one saying, “We’ve got the girls here. When will you come and collect them?” When she tried to escape with her friend, she was hit against the side of her face; a piece of her ear is now clearly missing. They were going to rape her and her friend, but one of the men stopped that, saying they needed to remain virgins as they would make better money. She lost consciousness when they hit her with a Sten gun, and when she woke up she was on the Romanian border. She was then driven by two men to a flat in Romania. She was too scared to speak—she was 14. She stayed overnight there. They were given dark clothes to wear. The two men were with them the whole time. They walked to another country, which she thinks was Hungary. They went across a river in an inflatable dinghy, blindfolded and with hands tied, and during the journey they were told to lie in the middle of the boat.
Gabriella was driven to an apartment; she is not sure where it was. There were five other girls there, one of whom spoke Russian, as does Gabriella. She did not understand why she was being talked to and looked at in the way that she was, but she realised this was a transit point for girls. There were 15 girls in the house, and the other people there were weighing up how much she might be worth. She spent a number of days in that flat, and then was told she would walk to Italy. She is not quite sure whether she was in Slovenia or another country, but they walked through another forest, and were picked up by a car. She was put in a lorry. She then arrived in Rimini, Italy, where she was sold to an Albanian. She was then taken to Milan, where she was sold to another Albanian, and she had to work on the streets of Milan between the ages of 14 and 16. She repeatedly tried to escape but was always apprehended.
Finally, the gang who caught her said, “To teach you a lesson, we’re going to take out one of your front teeth with a pair of pliers.” When I met her yesterday, I had already read about that, and the first thing I realised was that one of her front teeth was stuck back in place. They then threatened to murder her. They tied a rope up a tree and put the noose around her neck, and said, “If you try to escape again, we’ll hang you.” The girl that she had left the forest with—her 14-year-old friend—was murdered by the gang. Gabriella was sold to one gang and the girl was sold to another.
People may say, why do the parents not do anything? Gabriella’s mother is poor—she comes from a backward agricultural community in Moldova. She went to the police, who laughed at her. We must realise that the police in many countries are corrupt. She was worried about the 10-year-old sister of Gabriella she is bringing up, and the son. There have been threats on the family, including the brother, who has now gone to Russia, and the other girl is living alone with her mother. The mother is desperately worried that that daughter will be threatened and taken away as well.
The story goes on, and it gets worse. Gabriella got pregnant, as happens in these cases. She could not look after the daughter she gave birth to—she does not know who the father is—who had to go back to the mother to be looked after. Gabriella kept trying to get back to Moldova, but whenever she went back there she was re-trafficked, which constantly happens. We talk about this issue in the House and to people in the field, and this case illustrates only too well why it is so important to bring people’s attention to the appalling trafficking disease that has hit western countries.
Fortunately, Gabriella has been rescued. I pay tribute to the POPPY project and to her solicitors, who have been having problems. The Minister knows about this because I mentioned it to him earlier. The trouble is that the girl now has refugee status because of her harrowing experiences, of which I have described only some—I have 20 pages of them. She has been rescued and is living secretly in a flat. She is so terrified that she will not come out of the flat. She is a most delightful person, on the face of it, but she is experiencing terrible psychological trauma. She is on the verge of suicide because she is desperate to see her daughter. She cannot go to Moldova to see her because she thinks she will be killed by these gangs.
The UK Border Agency, for which the Minister is responsible, has assured me that there is no problem at all with getting Gabriella’s 6 or 7-year-old daughter into Britain, which is all Gabriella is living for. I got hold of the director of the UKBA last night, who assured me that it entirely agrees with my assessment: the child should be reunited with the mother as soon as possible. However, I was told that it was a matter for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This is the problem one constantly gets in this place. The FCO says it is ready to issue a one-way visa for the child to come to Britain. She needs a visa because she is a young child and cannot get a passport. The parents could not sign one, and in any case Gabriella is here.
So now, the FCO is involved, and I hope that the Minister, when he winds up on this very short debate, will say something about this case, which is one of the most horrific I have ever seen. From the age of 14, Gabriella has been bludgeoned by gangs. She has a chance of a new life here. She is an intelligent girl and I hope the Minister may feel that he can help in some way to reunite the family.
That was a little aside. I just wanted to mention this case to the House and why it is so important to have an anti-slavery day, so that it can be constantly remembered that we have modern-day slavery in this country.
Order. As it is on the hon. Gentleman’s own admission that what he has just said was an aside, I hope he will not encourage the Minister to go into that issue in detail, because this is hardly the proper occasion. I have allowed the hon. Gentleman very considerable scope in introducing what is in fact a specific Bill. The House has obviously been stunned, to some extent, by what he has had to say, but we ought now to be reaching the point of examining the prime purpose for which he is seeking to introduce this legislation.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is wonderful how both our minds were working in the same way. I can assure you that, at the very point that you stood up, I was just about to move on. I am most grateful for that guidance, which was entirely appropriate and I entirely accept what you say.
Although our Parliament has enacted good laws in the past 10 years to prosecute traffickers and to assist and protect victims of human trafficking—and, most recently, the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings—we need to increase awareness of the issues surrounding human trafficking on the part of those most likely to come into contact with victims. This is essential for effective enforcement, because the techniques that traffickers use to keep their victims enslaved severely limits their self-respect.
Thanks to this Government—we must give them credit for what they have done—we have the Sexual Offences Act 2003, the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004, the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004, the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006, the Policing and Crime Act 2009, and the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. That is all good legislation to deter traffickers, but it has to be implemented, and the police and judiciary are now important in dealing with this problem. Collectively, these laws were passed to criminalise the trafficking of human beings in the UK, reduce the likelihood of exploitation of others and make it possible to recover profits gained as a result of criminal activity.
The UK signed the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings on 23 March 2007, ratified it on 17 December 2008 and implemented it recently. We are one of 26 countries that have ratified and implemented the convention. It is the first legally binding regional European treaty on human trafficking. The convention recognises trafficking in human beings as a major human rights issue and seeks to strengthen the legal protection afforded to victims.
On 23 March 2007—the same day that the UK signed the convention—the Government published their first UK action plan on tackling human trafficking. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), who was then the Minister with responsibility for such issues, who for three or four years pushed, along with the all-party group on the trafficking of women and children, for new legislation and action. His work was untiring and excellent. The aim of the action plan was to highlight current work on human trafficking across all Government agencies, identify gaps in existing work and outline future plans. However, it is not enough to sit back and rest on our laurels. Just as we have a salt awareness week to alert the public to the dangers of a high-sodium diet, an annual human trafficking awareness day would alert the public to the horrors of the modern-day slave trade, which they would not normally think about.
All of us here think in terms of political expediency and what needs to be done. If one mentions this issue to a taxi driver or a builder, he may have an idea of what human trafficking is in the back of his mind. With the problems in Haiti in our minds and on the news, he will have an idea of what human trafficking is. However, we desperately need to be reminded regularly of these issues, and regularly to identify for young people and others the dangers that exist.
The Government could say that there is already an international day to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, an international day for the remembrance of the slave trade and its abolition, and an international day for the abolition of slavery, but I know they will not. All those days are very unspecific and not well established. The important thing is to let men, women and children know that modern-day slavery exists here in Britain and needs to be stamped out. We must reinforce the focus and understanding of the public. Slavery did not disappear when Wilberforce passed his legislation through this House. That is why we need an annual anti-slavery day.
A national anti-slavery day would continue to draw attention to the evils of human trafficking post-Wilberforce and how it is manifesting itself in British society. We would not be the first country to establish a day of awareness of human trafficking and modern-day slavery; the United States has already done this. In June 2007, the US Senate passed a resolution establishing a national day of human trafficking awareness on 11 January each year. The aim of the day is to raise awareness of and opposition to human trafficking and modern-day slavery, both domestically and across the globe. Various events are organised each year in the US on that day, including public debates, press conferences and a film screening, along with news items and media reports. It strikes me that 11 January is a good day to choose, as it is during the school term, but my Bill suggests that the Secretary of State should determine which date is used—I did not try to fix the date in concrete at this stage.
Similarly, schools in Britain could be encouraged to incorporate this topic into their curriculum to raise awareness among students. That would encourage teachers to receive special training to help their students learn about modern-day slavery in a sensitive and engaging way. Specialist training would also be a priority for social workers and the police, so they could develop expertise in the area and play an instrumental role in raising awareness among local communities. Thus, people across the board would start waking up; just as Holocaust memorial day was held earlier this week, so we would have a day to raise awareness of slavery, modern-day slavery and human trafficking. The efforts made by individuals, business, organisations, educational institutions and governing bodies to promote the observance of an anti-slavery day each year would represent one of the many examples of an ongoing commitment in the UK to raise awareness of human trafficking and to oppose such trafficking actively.
In December 2009—just two months ago—the US Senate approved a resolution to establish a national slavery and trafficking prevention month in January. The month-long observance is intended to enhance the fight against human trafficking. Given that the United States and the United Kingdom were the two main drivers behind the transatlantic slave trade, it would be fitting if they had the same anti-slavery awareness day. It would also be a fitting tribute to this Government’s commitment to making Britain a hostile environment for traffickers.
We have been subject to increasing media coverage of serious aspects of human trafficking; most recently, there has been much about Haiti and the risks of children going missing there. I raised the matter at Prime Minister’s questions on 27 January. There has also been widespread coverage of the risks taken by well-intentioned individuals who rented a bus to rescue Haitian children and attempted to bring them into the Dominican Republic and establish an orphanage. Films have been made about Roma children and about girls who have been brought from eastern Europe and the far east and forced into prostitution. A couple of weeks back, The Times 2 did a feature on domestic slavery and the problems that domestic workers face when they work in this country. Incidentally, I am sponsoring an exhibition, with the all-party group, that will be held in the hall upstairs on 22 January. It will be opened by the Home Secretary and will be identify the problems caused by human trafficking.
I am on my last paragraph, so I thought that I might just get that in.
By far the largest number of people trafficked into the UK may well be trafficked for forced labour. The UK Human Trafficking Centre is already making progress to highlight the extent of the problem in the agricultural sector. As the Gangmasters Licensing Authority is also involved in that work, there is a strong case for widening the remit of the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 to include the hospitality, construction, and care industries—those very important areas are often forgotten.
In the past three years, Britain has moved from behind the pack—the other EU countries—in tackling human trafficking to the head of the pack. Unfortunately, the problem of human trafficking is growing. It is the modern version of slavery, and it is virulent. Declaring a national awareness day would be the best way of recognising that evil for what it is. We could lead with our European partners, and I hope that we can complete the work that William Wilberforce rose in this very building to begin more than 200 years ago, as the majority mistakenly believe the illusion that slavery has all but disappeared.
I am sure that you will be interested to learn, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the Inter-Parliamentary Union is holding a conference on this very issue for parliamentarians beginning on 22 February. Parliamentarians from all over Europe who are committed to and interested in this matter, many of whom I have visited in their countries, will be coming to the IPU to discuss and debate how they can work much better together. I believe that I have covered the matter and that the House will understand what I am trying to say. If I cannot say it in 50 minutes, there is not much point in my carrying on speaking for much longer, so I merely say that I commend this first-rate Bill to my colleagues.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on introducing his Bill. As he knows, I am one of its supporters. I also congratulate him on his speech. For a moment, I thought he was going after my record for the time taken in setting out one’s arguments, but I am pleased to be able to say that he did not break it—he was quite a long way short.
I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman’s all-party group on the work that it is doing and has done. It works in parallel with my Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has taken a particular interest in the issue of trafficking. Only last week, we had an evidence session with the Minister to follow up on our previous reports on the issue. A number of points arose from that, but I shall not go into them today because that would involve straying from the text of the Bill. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned William Wilberforce, I should say that he lived in what is now my constituency and founded my local church, so I have a particular constituency interest in seeing how this all progresses.
I have a problem with part of the text of the Bill, specifically the references to “modern-day slavery” and
“taking the place of the trans-Atlantic slave trade”.
The hon. Gentleman will know that, like him, I have attended IPU events to discuss trafficking. The phrase “modern-day slavery” is not really accepted by a number of the countries in Africa, which find it an offensive comparison with the old slave trade. Assuming that the Bill goes into Committee—I hope that it will—I urge him to consider whether he could remove that phrase because it is not needed to make the point about trafficking. If he were to do so, we would be left with a much more consensual Bill, particularly given how many people from Africa live in our country and who might otherwise feel offended.
On the other reference, the hon. Gentleman has explained at length that his Bill deals with the modern problem of trafficking, which, as he said, is a worldwide one. He has mentioned the trafficking of children from Vietnam in order to grow cannabis in factories and the problem of young women who are trafficked from eastern Europe to work in the sex trade. None of those things relates in any way, shape or form to the transatlantic slave trade. Equally, he knows as well as I do that people are trafficked not only into the UK, the US or even Europe, but throughout the world. As he said, trafficking is the second biggest criminal activity after the drugs trade. Thus, not only might people with an African heritage find the comparison in the simple reference to the transatlantic slave trade a little insulting, because they are very sensitive about that issue, but the reference does not get across what the Bill is actually about, which is to highlight the worldwide nature of the problem. The comparison between what happened in the 18th and 19th centuries with what is happening now is not really one we should have in this Bill.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that comment, so may I ask his advice? He is one of the sponsors of the Bill, so he supports it. Given that we wish to expedite its progress, does he agree that the reference could be removed in the other place or on Report? That would avoid our delaying the Bill’s progress in this place.
That is a difficult issue, because it is important to ensure that Bills leave this House in as good a shape as possible. I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I hope we will have time to put that right here because he is quite well up the batting order. I leave the Minister to discuss further the possibilities in that regard. I think the hon. Gentleman accepts that the Bill is not perfect on those two points.
To that extent, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. That brings me to my second point, because I support the principles behind the Bill and the Bill itself.
I wish to remind the hon. Gentleman of my experience when I introduced my Holocaust Remembrance Day Bill some 11 years ago, on which, in many ways, I suppose his Bill is modelled. I produced the Bill after a visit to Auschwitz. I came back wondering what I could do to sort this out. Given what he has been saying, it would appear that he has had a similar experience in respect of trafficking: he is very exercised about the issue, as I hope we all are, and he thus wants to do something about it and his Bill is a way of achieving that. I moved Second Reading and I raised the matter with the Prime Minister of the day, Tony Blair. In response to a parliamentary question, he said he thought it was a good idea and all the doors unlocked. The Home Office, which had previously been a little reticent, suddenly became extremely enthusiastic—I cannot understand why. In the end, we did not need the Bill to establish Holocaust memorial day. I think that everybody in the House accepts, or, at least, I hope they do, that that national commemoration has been a great success—we had the 10th only the other week—not only as a commemoration but in the way it has spread awareness of the issues of the holocaust throughout the country.
I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he might not need a Bill or an Act to achieve what he wants to achieve. The naming of the day is not important; what is important is the Government’s commitment to making the things happen that need to happen to make it a success. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the three other similar day-type commemorations, and I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration replies to the debate we can consider bringing those together in one form of commemoration and education under the Government’s auspices with their commitment to making it a success. The hon. Gentleman does not need legislation for that; he needs commitment. Even if the Bill is passed in its present form or in a slightly amended form, it does not necessarily mean that anything will happen other than a little name will appear in everybody’s diaries. We have to have commitment to make that happen—commitment from the Government, local government, voluntary bodies, schools and everybody else, and that needs a strong lead from the Government.
There is nothing between us; we are agreed on this. But there is a difference. We have a Holocaust memorial day that has focused public attention—let us remember that we sign the book downstairs. This is an opportunity to say, “We don’t like the title,” “We don’t like this,” or “We don’t like that.” We have an advantage—and it is a very small window of advantage—and an opportunity today, I believe, to push for the identification of a day a year to focus on this issue, although of course the Secretary of State would decide the day. If we lose this opportunity, another will not come along for a very long time, if at all. It is a question of which is better on balance: to have something that is not perfect or to have nothing. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman, in view of his sponsorship of this Bill, that he would not wish it to founder.
Yes, I am a sponsor of the hon. Gentleman’s Bill and I do not particularly want it to founder. However, I have explained that I think the Bill is a tool to make something happen, just as the Holocaust Remembrance Day Bill was a tool to make something happen. In the end, we did not need the legislation, because the Government took it on, with all-party support, and now Holocaust memorial day is well established. I hope that the hon. Gentleman sees this Bill as a tool that can be used to make something happen.
We were a lot more advanced in the debate on Holocaust memorial day: we had signed up all the constituent parts of the argument, identified the day—which was somewhat controversial at the time—and, using the Bill as a tool, we were able to make it happen. I hope the hon. Gentleman will see that his Bill does not necessarily have to become an Act, but can be used as a tool to ensure that things happen in the same way.
I have nothing against that, except I will not be here to see it happen. Bearing in mind the time and the fact that his Bill follows mine, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will give the Bill a chance to be pushed through, even if it founders somewhere else, and used as a vehicle in the way that he has been thinking. However, if it does not move on today to the other place, it will not be a vehicle, because it will not have any leverage.
I am not quite sure what the hon. Gentleman has in mind, but I think I have made my point. In fact, I was about to sit down, but I thought that he would like to get his intervention in.
I approve of the concept of an anti-slavery day, but there are problems with the text. If the Bill does not become law or if the Government are not prepared to support it, I hope that the Government will give the concept, at least, their blessing and, at the same time, see what they can do to show the Government’s commitment to tackling these issues.
I greatly welcome the work of the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen). He has a long-established reputation and is held in high regard in this House, and in his speech he was able to talk at length about the issues and the work that he has done in this connection. It is worth saying that it commands enormous cross-party support and respect and the hon. Gentleman has done us a real service.
Whether through the Bill or simply because the issue has been raised, I hope that the Government will act. There are two big points to make. First, although the hon. Gentleman did not dwell on it, this country has every reason to be proud of its history on this issue. This House, in particular, has every reason to be proud of its history. All of us who count ourselves as progressives—I think the hon. Gentleman would be one of them—can claim some credit for progressives in this place in the past, who challenged established views and succeeded in the anti-slavery legislation.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the generous things he has said; I am most grateful to him. The fact is that Britain led the world on the anti-slavery legislation. On human trafficking, we were quite slow, compared with other European countries, to realise what was happening. We have caught up. The Government have consistently had good Ministers in the Home Office who were committed to doing something and they have done as much as they can. This is what is needed now and it is an opportunity for Britain to take the lead again in the EU. That is why I am concerned that we should not lose that opportunity.
The hon. Gentleman intervened just as I was about to turn to the present. He made his point very clearly, and he is right. There is a desperate need to awaken people’s consciences to what is going on. The Government have made huge strides in this regard, but, as the hon. Gentleman made clear, there is more to be done. Tackling the issue will be done best if people are aware of it, because the problem is often in the house next door or the flat across the road. Making people aware of the issue, and getting them to report it and no longer turn a blind eye to it, is how we will effectively overcome it. That is all I want to say and that is why I believe that the hon. Gentleman’s proposal is a good one.
It is, indeed, a pleasure to rise in support of the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen). I congratulate him not only on his powerful and compelling speech, but on his exemplary use of an all-party group to pursue an important campaign. I wish the Bill well.
I found it unique and slightly surreal that the only objection to the Bill so far has come from one of its sponsors. That is made more surreal by the fact that I might have thought that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) was doing what he often does on a Friday morning, and extending the debate in a creative way, but I looked at the Order Paper and discovered that the next Bill for consideration is from the hon. Gentleman. I am not entirely sure what his contribution was designed to achieve.
I want to make it clear that the Opposition support my hon. Friend’s Bill. It is an important initiative that is aimed at raising public awareness. As has been said by several hon. Members so far, this is not a problem of inner cities and of big cities. It is now a problem that unexpectedly affects every community—or many communities—in this country. I know that it is a problem in my constituency, which is not the sort of area where one would expect to find this sort of problem. I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill, which takes a significant step with no apparent public spending commitment, which is not only admirable but extremely sensible.
I assure the House that no public expenditure whatever is intended. It will be up to organisations and institutions in this country to decide how they wish to recognise modern-day slavery. That is what the Bill seeks to do, along the lines of what has been done in the United States, where the whole month of January is dedicated to the issue. I am suggesting only one day, and I suggest that the Secretary of State would name that day. It would give a focus to the issue, and I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for acknowledging that it is needed.
My hon. Friend makes his point. It is important to have a day devoted to increasing public knowledge and awareness that slavery and human trafficking are a contemporary problem, not simply something that people read about in history books.
I hope that the House can pass the Bill because, this week of all weeks, it is important for the House to be seen to be doing something useful, relevant, creative and constructive. Conservative Members are wholeheartedly committed to the cessation of the modern slave trade and, along with many of the things that my hon. Friend has already said, we have proposed an integrated and coherent strategy to achieve that. The hon. Member for Hendon made a few remarks about whether modern-day slavery is the appropriate phrase to use, but clearly human trafficking is the modern form of slavery, and it is deeply depressing that it is becoming so prevalent 200 years after William Wilberforce famously succeeded in beginning the abolition of the slave trade in this country.
Human trafficking is a particularly serious problem for this country. The Minister and I spend much of our time arguing about our lax border controls, but clearly Britain is not just a target country for human traffickers; it is also a transit country. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes made the point that the international trafficking trade, which the UN estimates affects about 800,000 people a year, is now the second-biggest international crime, after the drugs trade. One fact that my hon. Friend did not mention, which I find equally depressing, is that it is the fastest growing of the big international crimes. Drugs, guns and people are trafficked around the world by some of the world’s most unpleasant and organised criminals, and of those three horrors human trafficking is growing the fastest and will, if things carry on as they are, become the biggest international crime.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the other items, arms trading and drug trafficking, do not involve human life? This is the one crime that human beings are subject to. They are treated in the most appalling and despicable way—not much different from how they were treated under the old slave trade. This is modern slavery; I am afraid that it has not yet been abolished.
I do not want to try to establish moral distinctions between three particularly unpleasant crimes, but my hon. Friend is right. This is the nearest thing that we have to the old slave trade. Anyone who has grown up during the past 50 years will read the history books with horror, wondering how people could have treated other human beings like that as recently as 200 years ago, but sadly and depressingly we come to the conclusion that they are still doing that now. That is a horrific fact on which we need to reflect.
I am glad that my hon. Friend made the point that human trafficking is not simply to do with sexual exploitation—it is wider than that and includes labour exploitation—because it is important that we do not get sidetracked into a debate about prostitution. Clearly there are hugely important debates to be had about that, and a significant amount of human trafficking is for the purpose of sexual exploitation, but the trade is more than that. Labour exploitation should be regarded as equally important, particularly as it affects children. I do not want to repeat many of the things that have already been said in the debate, but many of us will find it particularly appalling that a large and apparently growing number of children are trafficked. The physical mistreatment that is often part of the trafficking process seems particularly disgusting. Many of the victims are lured under the false pretence of more favourable work or pay and made financially dependent on arrival.
My hon. Friend mentioned the terrible case of Gabriella, whom he met yesterday. I am sure that Members will have heard similar examples. There is one of a woman in her early 20s, who we shall call Suzanne, from Lithuania, who after the death of her husband was offered a job in London by two Lithuanian men. They said that it would enable her to better provide for her two children. Escorted by one of the men, she flew to London, where she was met by two other Lithuanians who were already living here. They took her to a flat where she was locked up and forced to have sex with up to 10 men a day. Her pimps kept all the money, claiming £10,000 was owed to their boss for bringing her to the UK and for her living costs. After four months, she became pregnant. I regret to say that that is the routine sort of story that one hears in this field.
As I say, young women are affected, but so too are children. In introducing his Bill, my hon. Friend talked about the problems of children’s homes. I draw to the attention of the Minister and the House the problems of the homes in the London borough of Hillingdon. No blame at all attaches to the local authority, because we cannot make those children’s homes secure unless we make them prisons, and none of us wants to do that. It has been identified that since 2006, more than 70 Chinese children have gone missing from a home there; obviously, it is close to Heathrow. Only four have been found—two girls returned after a year of exploitation in brothels in the midlands. One was pregnant, while the other had been surgically fitted with a contraceptive device in her arm. We seem to know that the absconding is straightforwardly at the facilitation of organised crime groups.
On the problems of Hillingdon, I have met the leadership of the council and its senior officers, and we believe there is more that we can do together. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the cross-party approach that his party is taking on the issue. We clearly need to help Hillingdon, and we intend to do so.
I am grateful to the Minister for those remarks. Of course, the approach is not just cross-party, as he will be well aware. Hillingdon and Kent are the two local authorities most exposed to the problem of unaccompanied children. Indeed, one of the new centres for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is in my constituency—I visited it recently—so wearing almost every hat that I have, I am deeply concerned about the issue. Those local authorities that have to grapple with the matter have serious problems funding and organising all the arrangements for unaccompanied children, and having international criminal gangs trying to exploit and take away those children is clearly an enormous difficulty.
In this country, exploitation of labour is common in agriculture, construction, domestic cleaning, contract cleaning and the care sector. We all know the more tragic examples of what happens as a result of that kind of labour exploitation: there were the Chinese cockle pickers who died in Morecambe bay and the lorryful of Chinese workers who suffocated in Folkestone. We also know that something like 60 per cent. of illegal immigrants arrive in the UK by illegal means, the majority in the backs of lorries. Many of them will have paid huge sums of money to agents—up to £22,000—and many of them are forced into debt bondage, are kept in appalling conditions and are victims of organised criminal gangs.
Terribly, even in those conditions, many of those people prefer to be here than in their home country, because their life in their country was even worse than the life that they are forced to live here. We have to accept that as an issue. Incredibly perversely, many of them prefer to be illegal workers. In an evidence session for a previous immigration Bill, Jack Dromey said that his union had found evidence of Portuguese workers—who could, of course, have come here perfectly legally—pretending to be Brazilians and operating under false Brazilian passports, because that way, they could work illegally, take jobs at below the minimum wage and allow themselves to be exploited. They thought that it was easier to get work that way. One can see the depths of the perverse effects.
Many of these victims are unwittingly involved in organised crime. We know that there are many crimes associated with human trafficking, including the employment of illegal immigrants, drug crimes and money laundering, as well as prostitution and child abuse. I expect the Minister would agree that we need to ensure that campaigns such as the cross-borders Blue Blindfold campaign continue to help raise awareness of this despicable trade, as the Bill would do.
We on the Conservative Benches have previously urged the Government to focus on the countries of origin. We were pleased to see a mention of that in the millennium goals. In introducing the Bill, my hon. Friend mentioned what happens in the countries of origin. It is clear that prevention work in such countries will be hugely valuable as part of the long-term package of measures that we need to take to combat human trafficking.
We were pleased when the Government responded to pressure from us and others and signed up to the European convention on trafficking in human beings. We know that that is not just a UK problem. It is one for the whole of Europe, and we can learn a great deal from studying the work done in other countries, particularly Austria and Italy, which have shown some creative thought in this area.
An important development that has not been mentioned was the formation of the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre. The existence of one central point of information on trafficking has clearly been valuable to police forces, the Crown Prosecution Service and other agencies. The existence of the UKHTC demonstrates the importance of specialisation when tackling new and growing types of crime. I hope that expertise does not disappear in the future.
I visited the UK Human Trafficking Centre with the Joint Committee on Human Rights. If the centre co-ordinates statutory organisations, gets statistics and provides information, we should support it, but we should not forget the non-governmental agencies, which receive little or no help from the Government, other than the POPPY project. Bearing in mind that £1.8 million goes to the Human Trafficking Centre, does my hon. Friend agree that a similar sum should go to the non-governmental organisations who do such amazing work in victim protection?
My hon. Friend has just broken the covenant whereby he was not going to ask for more public spending—[Interruption.] He says from a sedentary position, “Get rid of the UK Human Trafficking Centre.” I do not agree. The UKHTC does good work and it would be short-sighted to shut it. I take his point that some of the NGOs are clearly doing valuable work as well.
I have some concerns about the current action plan because there appear to be problems with the national referral mechanism at a local level. I hope the Minister would agree that better information needs to be provided to local authorities and police forces so that they are aware of the problem, better able to identify victims and confident in using the mechanism.
The figures show the scale of the problem. In October 2008 the Government published an assessment stating that 360 children were trafficked into and within the UK each year, but only 57 under-18s were referred to the national referral mechanism as suspected victims of human trafficking last year, out of a total of 527 referrals. In the five years to 2009, 452 people were arrested for human trafficking offences, but fewer than a quarter, only 110, were convicted. Those figures are worrying.
One important area that is often neglected is trafficking for forced labour. In 2008 there were only four convictions for trafficking for the purpose of forced labour, despite the problems that we know about in relation to organised immigration crime. As a country, we could do much better at cracking down on rogue employers. That is why we differ from the Government on a series of proposals about better border policing.
We have made a number of suggestions: instructing immigration officials to check the date of the return ticket of the adult accompanying minors and look for discrepancies; better work with countries of origin to help reintegrate victims, prevent the re-trafficking that my hon. Friend mentioned and educate potential victims; more robust law enforcement to bring to justice more traffickers and employers of forced labour; and better co-operation with the national authorities of other countries within Europol and Eurojust.
All those measures would be useful, but our most important defence against human trafficking is our own borders, and we suggest replacing ad hoc police operations by mainstreaming trafficking as a police priority through a national border police force. The Government’s failure to tackle the problems at our borders has resulted in a disastrous rise in organised immigration crime, and the Conservative party believes that we cannot tackle crime in the UK effectively without addressing the problems at our borders. They could be better policed, and we could prevent significant illegal immigration while cracking down on the trafficking of people and, indeed, weapons and drugs.
We believe that the specialisation of police services is most effective in fighting those new crimes, and that is why we commissioned Lord Stevens to conduct a review of our border security. We conclude, with him, that only a unified force can best protect our borders, so an incoming Conservative Government would make setting up a national border police force one of their priorities. We want to replace the current system, which, as we have seen over the past few years, lacks a comprehensive, joined-up strategy. That significant practical measure would improve the protection of our borders generally, and give us a better weapon in the fight against human trafficking, specifically.
Many measures can be taken, however, and my hon. Friend’s Bill, which would significantly improve public awareness of the problem, would be another significant and welcome step forward. I am therefore very happy to support it, because we need to ensure that Britain once again leads the way in fighting slavery. We need to continue Wilberforce’s work, so that this new slavery is eradicated as soon as possible.
I shall be brief, because I am anxious for this and the following business to be discussed. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) for his work on these issues. He has talked to me about many of them for some considerable time, and he has opened my eyes to a very serious issue; occasionally he has caused them to close after a very lengthy discussion, but mostly he has opened them.
We all think that my hon. Friend’s proposed day will raise awareness of this incredibly important and serious issue, which many people are not as aware of as they should be: we had the 200th anniversary celebrations of Wilberforce’s Act, and most people think that slavery is long gone. I pay tribute once more to my hon. Friend for his work. The House will lose a doughty crusader on this issue, and I hope that he will—indeed, I urge him to—continue that work wherever he finds himself.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on bringing this Bill to the House as the latest stage of his important campaign to focus attention on awareness of, and action against, human trafficking. He said that his speech today might be one of his last in this place, but I hope that it is not, because we benefit from his knowledge. Today he has brought to the House the benefit of what a comprehensive, campaigning Member of Parliament can do, and I am thinking not only of the hon. Gentleman’s time in the House.
In preparation for this debate, I have been reading the current edition of The House Magazine, No. 1330 volume 35. There is a profile of the hon. Gentleman that is very relevant to the Bill. It is headed “Pioneering spirit not extinguished”, and that sums things up rather well. He informs the House, through the magazine, of his intention to continue in this place working on this campaign, albeit in a different capacity. I congratulate him on that and wish him well; with a long career behind him, he has, I hope, many years ahead of him to campaign on this issue.
The hon. Gentleman did not explain his Bill in the legalistic jargon that we sometimes hear; I am probably as guilty of that as others. He expressed himself in very human terms, which my constituents would understand, as he related the human stories behind the issue. I suspect that he shares my burning frustration at the fact that the Press Gallery is vacant this morning. There are some stories that the public need to know about, and it is sad that it is left to just a few journalists to bring attention to them. People say that this place is not relevant, but they ought to listen to or report our debates on these issues. Unless I say something sensational, I doubt whether this debate will be reported; I think the hon. Gentleman knows what I am referring to.
The House is extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing this subject to our attention and for the work of the all-party group on the trafficking of women and children, many of whose members are sponsoring the Bill. I know that there was a recent meeting about consular domestic workers, an issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised today.
Obviously, the Government have been giving consideration to the hon. Gentleman’s proposal that the United Kingdom should introduce a national day of awareness about human trafficking and slavery. The Bill lays out its purpose clearly, and that purpose can be supported. The provisions in clause 1(2)(a) to (c) lay the purpose out. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) made reference to how they might be interpreted.
I should say at the start that the Government will not oppose the Bill; we think that it is for the House to decide whether it is appropriate that there should be a statutory anti-slavery day. Should the House move the Bill on to the next stages, we will offer the services of parliamentary counsel to address some of the concerns identified as we considered the Bill in Whitehall.
I know that I am not meant to read out the brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I will on this occasion, as it will be helpful. It raises some of the concerns about wording, the usual advice on meaning—particularly about words such as “proactive”—and concerns about presentational issues, to which the hon. Gentleman himself referred, in relation to the existing European Union anti-trafficking day and the UNESCO day on slavery. The brief also refers to how and why this day, as opposed to other days, needs statutory backing. Armistice day has no statutory backing, but I guess that the House would say that it does not need it; no Government would want not to focus resources on it.
That, however, is a matter for the House. Should the Bill get to the next stages, we will offer the services of parliamentary counsel. I hope that that is taken in the spirit of helpfulness in which it is intended. It is always a good idea to read out the brief when it is intended to be helpful.
We therefore support the principle behind the Bill. Its stated purpose is to point out that
“modern-day slavery is taking the place of the trans-Atlantic slave trade”.
I understand that point, although my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon made us aware of a concern that some communities may have. The fact is that, as the Bill states,
“millions of men, women and children continue to be victims of modern-day slavery, depriving them of basic human dignity and freedom”,
That is taking place within the European Union, which is of particular concern.
The issue is simple. If we stopped people in the street today and talked about human trafficking, a great number of them would not know what we were talking about and a great number more would say, “Oh, it all finished years ago.” In other European countries, ideas are even vaguer. The whole approach in Europe, starting here today, should be that we are not going to have modern-day slavery. What Wilberforce did in the 19th century is what we need to do in the 21st, and we must apply it to a new kind of slavery involving human beings who are victimised, treated cruelly and abused for the sake of money for the traffickers. We have to do that today. Parliamentary draftsmen, for all they are worth, will find a reason to make the Bill meaningless, so we must not necessarily take all their advice.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about parliamentary draftsmen. They are very helpful to Ministers and we could not do without them, but his point is strong. I should explain that the lead responsibility for the matter in the Home Office rests with the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), but of course we work extremely closely together, particularly because the UK Border Agency works with police forces. I shall return to the debate between the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) and myself about the desirability or otherwise of a specific police force within UKBA, but the work that we are doing benefits from a partnership approach.
The Bill mentions the particular desirability of raising awareness among young people, which is very important. I share the views of the hon. Member for Totnes about the lack of awareness. The views that he described were my own misunderstanding before I took the job, and before I undertook research into the matter as a private citizen after the exhibition that the POPPY project held last year. As a father, let alone as a member of the public, I was horrified by the depth and breadth of trafficking. Of course, one could say that even if only one person was trafficked, they would deserve the action that we are trying to take.
Helpfully and in a non-partisan way, the Bill attempts to put into statute the desirability of drawing attention to
“the progress made by government and those working to combat all forms of modern-day slavery”,
and it is good for Parliament to make that point. Perhaps it would be helpful if I briefly outlined the work that we are doing in that regard. Central to our approach has been the desirability of reconciling the various objectives of enforcing the laws against traffickers, preventing illegal immigration, which is often associated with trafficking, and protecting victims. That approach was commended by the House through the Joint Committee on Human Rights in its 26th report of the 2005-06 Session. It is worth quoting that report, which stated:
“We are encouraged by our further belief that the Government is also committed to achieving the best possible balance in its overall policy to combat trafficking, grounding that policy in human rights standards, and has an open mind about how this can best be achieved.”
In 2007, the year of the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, we published the first UK action plan, which was updated most recently in October 2009, as the hon. Member for Totnes knows. That coincided with the European Union’s anti-trafficking day, which is held on 18 October each year, as hon. Members have said. In addition to the action plan, we also issued a publicity leaflet for victims of trafficking and advice for practitioners, to ensure as far as possible that the voluntary and statutory agencies are singing from the same hymn sheet. On the same day the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth, who has responsibility for crime reduction, spoke on the issue in Brussels, outlining the work undertaken by the UK in contributing to the European effort.
The plan looks at the issue from end to end—from the source of the pipeline, if I can use that phrase, to the experience of the victim at the end of it. The hon. Gentleman has explained the circular nature of the problem, given the pressure put on victims through threats to their families in their home countries. The plan takes an end-to-end approach and focuses on four key areas: prevention; investigation, enforcement and prosecution; providing protection to adult victims; and providing protection to child victims. Let me look briefly at each.
The prevention of trafficking is essential. Our attention has focused on three areas: increasing our understanding of the problem; addressing issues that impact on the supply side of human trafficking; and deterring the demand for human trafficking. Those are not simple tasks. The covert and deceptive nature of the crime makes it difficult to assess the scale of the problem. One estimate of the scale of trafficking for sexual exploitation is that there were up to 4,000 victims in the UK at any one time in 2003. That is not 4,000 victims throughout the year; it is 4,000 at any one time, which is where the recent press reports, to which reference has been made, got confused.
In April the Government will publish a revised estimate of the nature and scale of trafficking for sexual exploitation in this country. That work will be taken forward in 2010. Alongside that we will do scoping studies of trafficking for forced labour and domestic servitude. I mention those things because the hon. Gentleman’s Bill says that it is desirable to draw attention to the problem. I hope that he does not regard those initiatives as a substitute for action; rather, they are part of it.
Is the Minister aware—I was not aware of this until last week, when I met some police officers concerned with sexual exploitation—that the police have now identified more than 2,200 brothels in this country? For instance, there were thought to be half a dozen brothels in Croydon, but they have now found that the figure is 60. All brothels apparently have so many trafficked women in them—indeed, the police believe that as many as half or two thirds of the women in many British brothels have been trafficked and forced to work there—that we might find that the figure of 4,000, which I accept, will double when we start to get more information.
I am not familiar with the specific figure, but my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House has drawn our attention to that. I simply make the point, which I know the hon. Gentleman agrees with, that the figures are sometimes misunderstood because it is assumed that the problem is static, and of course it is not.
Our understanding of the scale of the problem is improving steadily. Particularly helpful in that context has been the introduction of the national referral mechanism, to which the hon. Member for Ashford referred, which was established as part of the ratification of the Council of Europe convention on 1 April 2009. The national referral mechanism is a multi-agency framework that assists in identifying victims of trafficking and then providing support. It is supported by significant investment to provide front-line officers and responders with the skills to assess whether an individual should be referred into the framework. That work includes training staff to respond to individuals in an appropriate manner. The hon. Member for Totnes mentioned the desirability of improving awareness and training in this area across the various agencies.
A serious point about the policy proposal put forward by the hon. Member for Ashford is that, although we would not want to rule out a police force within an agency on ideological or dogmatic grounds, we must acknowledge the practical question of what is the best framework for getting all the agencies to work in partnership on this issue. Is there a danger that a Border Agency police force would lead to other police forces and agencies de-prioritising this issue because they were working on the assumption that the agency police force was responsible?
My response to this proposal is that, whatever arguments we have about the border, it is not the border itself that needs the extra policing; it is the investigation and enforcement. That is why our preferred approach is through the local immigration and crime teams. They could adopt what I describe as the Eliot Ness approach. Members will recall that Al Capone was captured by a tax investigator, not by a man with a machine gun. Similarly, immigration and police powers working together are mutually beneficial because, more often than not, human trafficking involves illegal immigration activity and other crimes. I am sure that this debate will be heightened in the next few weeks. There is a serious, almost tactical, decision to be taken on this, as well as a strategic one.
Training is now mandatory for all UK Border Agency staff below assistant director level, and training modules for the police service have been inserted into mandatory mainstream training courses throughout the police. However, it is not enough simply to focus on human trafficking in the UK. Many victims are foreign nationals from the EU and beyond. The second strand therefore involves addressing the problem at source.
The Home Office works closely with our colleagues in the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as well as with the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which is an international organisation. I have recently met officers in Nigeria, for example, and it is possible to see the end-to-end approach working as intelligence comes through from such countries. Those organisations have a number of initiatives to tackle trafficking at source, and the work has four components, of which awareness raising is one. We hear horrendous stories about young people who are understandably naive. Perhaps naive is not the right word, but they lack awareness of what is going on. The hon. Member for Totnes has recounted stories of youngsters believing that they are going to get a decent job and ending up in enslavement. The second component involves capacity building in the source and transit countries to deal with organised immigration crime. The third involves working with Governments and other organisations within the EU and beyond. The fourth involves taking action to address the factors that make poor people vulnerable to trafficking in the first place. The strategy in the Czech Republic is an example of that.
DFID works in 150 countries, and plays a critical role in preventing trafficking at source, through work on combating poverty and social injustice and implementing long-term development programmes. For example, we are currently supporting a project run by the Salvation Army to combat child trafficking in Malawi. There are numerous projects like that in Africa. Similarly, the Crown Prosecution Service has undertaken programmes in a number of jurisdictions to improve the investigation and prosecution of offences. This has focused on the Caribbean, west Africa, China and Afghanistan, while we have also seconded Crown Prosecution Service staff to work in Sierra Leone and Ghana.
Within the European Union, in order to strengthen the international response, we take a joint approach, and we are negotiating a revised framework decision on human trafficking. The UK has played a key role in preparing for the Schengen evaluation of trafficking and supporting the development of ideas proposed by the then Swedish presidency to improve the EU’s external work to combat human trafficking. If one wants an example of why we were right not to join Schengen, this is a good one, in my opinion. Growing awareness and implementation of policy relating to the protection of the border and better sharing of data within EU countries is critical to this approach. The Swedish presidency recognised that, and a number of EU countries shifted their attitude, which is testament to the campaigning work going on in this country and elsewhere.
I assume from what the Minister is saying that he acknowledges that modern-day slavery crosses frontiers, but believes that there is no point in this country having a ring of steel around our borders if other countries are porous to human trafficking. Does he agree, therefore, that a major task for the European Commission is to stop funding conferences, seminars and research and to start giving money to NGOs and other organisations involved in the real fight against trafficking? For a very long time, the European Commission has spent money on things that are perfectly agreeable, so that there is a circus of attending seminars going on around Europe. People stop off at each country; they see each other; then they move on. Very few organisations, however, are doing the work that needs to be done and those that are trying to do it cannot get funding from the Commission because it favours conferences, seminars and a research approach rather than doing something to tackle the problem.
Let me answer that point very carefully. The answer is yes. I believe that we have seen a pendulum swing in the direction that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, and I believe that the evidence to show it is there. The recent appointment of the new British head of Europol provides such evidence. We are now seeing a shift in attitude, particularly from the French and organisations involved in Frontex, towards a much more pragmatic approach.
My personal view is that there has been a failure to recognise the reality of the problem and that too much emphasis has been placed on the assumption that all accession states are at the level of the original member states, which is simply not the case. Secondly, there has been a growing realisation of the economic damage. I realise that it should not require economic damage to make agencies respond more effectively to this human issue, but the reality of today’s world is that it does.
There have been some significant developments in countries in south and eastern Europe. Let me provide a small, but not trivial example—the banning of speed boats in Albania, which took place last year because those boats were being used literally to fast-speed young kidnapped girls across to Italy. The banning of speed boats caused a tremendous hoo-hah in Albania, but the public realised that it was necessary, although people in Italy and Albania had previously not been aware of the extent of the problem. This is a cat-and-mouse game and the criminals involved in it are extremely sophisticated—they could even be heads of organisations. As I have said, there has been a pendulum swing, and I commend that approach.
Let me move swiftly on. All this work is complemented by the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre in developing the Blue Blindfold brand, which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. Blue Blindfold is the international campaign of the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre, which it uses to endorse specific projects to counter human trafficking and to ensure that those projects are sustainable and not just one-offs. The aim of the campaign is to encourage law enforcement agencies, other professional bodies and the public to develop greater awareness of the issue. The Blue Blindfold brand is increasingly being adopted by international partners, including Crime Stoppers International.
Our campaign, which is linked with the Blue Heart campaign run by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, encourages all sections of society to be aware of the dangers. The US State Department’s 2009 “Trafficking in Persons” report described the campaign as one of the “Commendable Initiatives Around the World”, and we were grateful for that recognition. We will, of course, continue to use the brand to raise awareness, collaborating not just internationally but, crucially, with local authorities in this country. As we have heard today, the problem is widespread. Many people assume that it is a particularly urban problem, but that is not the case. I am sure that the constituents of the hon. Member for Ashford have been horrified to learn of what goes on. We have seen many examples of exploitation of this kind, the Morecambe bay example being perhaps the most high-profile.
Our commitment to instituting a strong enforcement response against those who seek to trade in humans is clearly critical. That is why we included anti-trafficking legislation in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004. The hon. Member for Totnes was kind enough to pay tribute to the Government for introducing legislation in an attempt to end trafficking. The House is often criticised for producing too many Bills, but an evolving problem such as this requires legislation.
Through the efforts of the UKHTC, enforcement bodies such as the police and UKBA, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, we have continued not just to strengthen legislation but to improve enforcement capacity, ensuring that human trafficking becomes core police business. Whatever the outcome of the debate about the border force, we must not lose sight of the importance of the mainstream police force’s prioritisation of the issue. That was the main topic of conversation at the recent West Midlands police federation Christmas event, an informal gathering of police officers from constable to superintendent level which was hosted by the House. I am sure that all Opposition spokesmen and Ministers hear similar views when they talk to forces around the country.
Let me list some of our key achievements. We have increased the number of convictions, including convictions for forced labour. The statistics given by the hon. Member for Ashford are, on the face of it, not as good as we would all like them to be, but our partnership approach means that prosecutions may employ other routes—for example, we can secure convictions through the taxman or through unrelated legislation. Criminal activity does not always take place in a single area. I do not criticise the hon. Gentleman for using those figures. Indeed, I want to see a conviction rate of 100 per cent., but that will take time, and we should not do down the officers who are using more sophisticated approaches. I wish that some tabloid journalists would understand that, rather than merely going for the quick headline.
As I said earlier, we have strengthened the legislation on labour trafficking to make it an offence to use a child or a vulnerable adult for gain. That is important, because of the fear that victims’ families will be threatened. I am not saying that it has entirely got rid of the problem, but it allows a villain to be prosecuted without the need to rely entirely on witnesses. I have already mentioned that we are ensuring that combating trafficking is part of core police business, and that is boosted by the introduction of the mandatory training on human trafficking for all new police officers.
A number of significant anti-trafficking operations have been, and are being, carried out. I was in Manchester on Wednesday, looking at the new headquarters of the local immigration crime team. About a dozen operations are taking place this week, as we increase our capacity to tackle not only trafficking itself, but connected activities such as the crime of sham marriage.
I have also already mentioned that we are working with international organisations. We are working to improve the situation in respect of prosecutions, too, through raising awareness in the judiciary. A key argument in the speech of the hon. Member for Totnes was that the judiciary are sometimes not as aware as they might be of the scale of the problem and the extent of the damage that can be done.
The Serious Organised Crime Agency is a key asset in countering the threat from organised criminals involved in trafficking. SOCA participates in the disruption and dislocation of the market for trafficked women for the UK vice trade and trafficking for labour. That disruption is a SOCA priority. We co-ordinate the work of the different agencies through two programme boards, both of which are chaired by senior SOCA officers. The boards focus on organised immigration crime within and outwith the UK, and their activities are aligned with the objectives set out in the UK action plan on human trafficking. To put this in layperson’s terms, a job does not get done unless it is somebody’s job to do it, and we have made this somebody’s job. I am sure Members support that common-sense principle.
The Minister’s comments are music to the ears of many of us. What the Government are doing is very good news, as is the progress that has been made over the past three or four years. The Minister must be aware, however, that there is a much bigger issue. The police are the key to detecting both the traffickers and the victims. Other police forces in Europe are not as up to date as ours is now, and many of them are riddled with links to the mafia and there is a tremendous amount of corruption. What can we do to establish a sufficient level of sophistication among the police forces of other EU countries and to make them aware of what we are doing here and of our successes?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, as do the Government. I have mentioned the economic damage trafficking does, and it is, perhaps, a sad world if it is the economic damage that causes people to prioritise this issue, but there is a discernible shift in attitude in Europe. There is also, of course, a debate to do with the client countries who wish to join the EU, and the Government’s approach to that is to say that we require not just intent, but evidence that those problems are being addressed. Indeed, I recently met the relevant Moldovan Minister. We discussed a range of issues, including this one. All the time, such meetings are taking place and work is being done.
As I have just said, one of the advantages now is that it is somebody’s job to address this issue. I think it was Chairman Mao who said that the goat that belongs to everyone starves to death. That is probably the most principled argument against communism—and damn right as well. If a task is nobody’s job and everybody’s job, it does not get done. The board we have created has the job of leading this work. Attention must be paid to getting across to the enforcement agencies and security services that there are huge advantages in respect of making progress in their work and achieving their goals in addressing trafficking, because, as we all know, crime is linked in with it.
Bringing together and focusing the work of SOCA with the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre, to which we second staff, and with domestic law enforcement agencies to deliver this concerted response is the right way forward. The relationship will grow closer and stronger after 1 April, when the UKHTC falls under SOCA’s remit. That initiative is to be welcomed.
As I have said, a focus of SOCA is combating the threat abroad. In the last year, this has involved increased engagement on the part of our global network of liaison officers—I love that phrase, Mr. Deputy Speaker; you can imagine what the lads call themselves, and very decent, professional officers they are—in 40 countries around the world. They work closely with our own international directorate in UKBA.
Let us consider one of the advantages of bringing together into a single organisation—UKBA—immigration officials, customs officials and visa officers overseas. I can tell the hon. Member for Totnes, by the way, that it is now the Home Office that oversees issuing visas, not the Foreign Office, and I shall come on to the case of Gabriella in a moment. The staff who process the visa applications are employees of UK Visas, which is part of UKBA. This is a tremendous weapon that we can use, through the greater sharing of intelligence and joined-up working from start to finish.
Let me give one example that has been in the public domain. Our officers have been working in rural areas of Nigeria, following fraudulent attempts to gain visas and connecting that with sponsors of visas in London and elsewhere in the country. Giving intelligence to, in this case, the Metropolitan police at a divisional commander level is disrupting this type of activity. So the international directorate of UKBA is part of the jigsaw puzzle, as well.
I have mentioned raising awareness within the judiciary. The CPS published updated legal guidance on human trafficking in 2009 to reflect the changes arising from the implementation of the Council of Europe convention, which the hon. Member for Totnes campaigned for. To be fair, the hon. Member for Ashford has raised that issue as well. This guidance emphasises the role of the CPS in identifying potential victims who may have committed criminal offences under duress or coercion. The hon. Member for Totnes gave an example of this problem occurring in central London, whereby people are forced to commit crime through threat of violence against themselves and their families back home. An awareness of this issue on the part of CPS authorities is critical in order to provide help.
Of course, there is the question whether the 2012 Olympic games will be used by organised criminals to traffick people. We are very much aware of that, and I am grateful to the Minister for the Olympics for the work that she is doing. I want to reassure hon. Members that there is no indication so far of an increase in human trafficking to the UK linked to the 2012 games. The key agency that is on top of this issue is of course the Met, which has dedicated resources and officers to it.
The Met had an internal review of how it tackles organised immigration crime, including trafficking. It has decided that from 1 April this year—the new financial year—responsibility for tackling this crime will transfer to the clubs and vice unit from the Met trafficking team. In turn, the unit will be supported by the assets of the Specialist Crime Directorate. Again, that reorganisation is focusing exactly on what the hon. Gentleman is rightly campaigning for—implementation. The idea of his anti-slavery day is of course to draw attention to this type of activity. There is, therefore, a sensible strategy in place.
We agree with the following statement made in Assistant Commissioner Cressida Dick’s assessment:
“investigating this key area into one single command will mean better co-ordination, less duplication and more accountability in the service we provide to victims.”
I am grateful to her for that, and I think the hon. Member for Totnes would welcome it too.
I think the Minister would like to know that the jury is out on the disbanding of the human trafficking team in the Met, which occurred when the Home Office withdrew its special funding. The jury is out on whether putting this work under one command—this particularly applies in respect of the clubs and vice unit, which is not known for its work on tackling human trafficking—will be a good idea. The all-party group has had a meeting with Assistant Commissioner Cressida Dick and we were very impressed by her grasp of the problem, but, as I say, the jury is out. We are working closely with her and we hope that an improvement will take place.
I understand that, and the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we should always have an open mind on this. I know he will agree with this next point, because he is an experienced businessman and chief executive. The structure is not what is important; what is important is what is going on. Part of the solution lies in increased awareness, because the more the authorities see that this place, the public and the newspapers are interested in this issue and are demanding action, the more their activity will be focused. Thus, it does not matter, ultimately, in which bit the work is done. However, I take his point and I take his advice.
The hon. Member for Ashford said that the all-party group on trafficking of women and children is an “exemplar” of what an all-party group should be. I have found that it knows what it is talking about—my goodness me it does—and that surely is the benefit of it. Given what has been going on this week, I wish we could reflect on that recognition of that knowledge, dedication and skill; it is why I do not think the hon. Member for Totnes should be standing down from the House, but he has made up his mind.
In the past six years, the Government have worked increasingly well with a network of partners to improve the support and protection of the victims, and I come to the most important point. Our work has included the provision of safe accommodation to get people, often traumatised women, out of harm’s way and protecting them. The hon. Gentleman gave us one example of this, and anyone who looks at the POPPY project’s work, particularly the photographic exhibition, will be sickened to find that these things are happening in the modern world.
The Government have also worked on developing specialist emotional and practical support for these people, who have been traumatised, often over a number of years, by their experiences; assisting with voluntary returns to home countries in a safe way—the development of that strategy is crucial; ensuring minimum levels of service from the criminal justice agencies under the victims code of practice; providing access to compensation in certain circumstances; and providing training for agencies that may encounter possible victims. Those are a number of the approaches that we are taking to try to provide support. I hate the word “holistic”, but it is obviously desirable to provide holistic support, because it means that the state should look after the individual, rather than just the bit of the individual for which it is responsible—that approach can sometimes do more harm than good if we get things wrong.
Such protection is vital, not just for the individual that we have been able to help but for the message that it sends out. It gives victims confidence that there is a safe place to go and that the authorities in this country are aware of this problem. That is very helpful in breaking the code of omerta that sometimes exists in organised criminal activity and in giving encouragement to victims, be they children, young women or men.
The hon. Gentleman will want to know the answer to the question, “How much money?” We have invested in an expansion of supported accommodation with refuge places for victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation and domestic servitude in London, Sheffield and Cardiff. That investment has also funded an increase in advocacy workers to help to provide tailored support to the victims and includes access to independent legal advice for immigration purposes. The most difficult decisions that one has to take in UKBA are often in this area—they are difficult in the sense that it is sometimes an awful experience to comprehend the background to them.
We are also committed to ensuring that front-line staff who come into contact with victims of trafficking have clear guidelines on their responsibilities when trafficking is suspected, as well as ensuring that victims are provided with safe advice.
I recognise that the Government have done a very good job with the police in making this police core business. In fact, part of the campaign of the all-party group was to make it core police business. The Minister will remember the questions that came from all parts of the House on that. However, the Government are weak on funding non-governmental agencies. They are the ones that are pushing forward the agenda, identifying the victims and explaining where the weaknesses are. Other than the POPPY project, which we both accept does invaluable work, the non-governmental agencies are not getting help at all. That is what concerns me—not the police, as I think they have it under control, not the statutory bodies, such as UKBA or the UK Human Trafficking Centre, but all those dedicated non-governmental agencies that are working on a pittance without a penny piece of public support.
That raises difficult areas of public policy that we all recognise in the debate between the desirability of the devolution of powers and the desirability of ring-fencing. The Supporting People housing support budget, which is about £2.1 billion, helps to address this problem.
There is an assumption that this is an inner-city problem. Support groups often find themselves unable to get finances and advice, because there is an assumption that this problem does not take place in Totnes and Ashford, to name just two areas. If I were the hon. Gentleman, I would make that an argument for the Bill—it focuses attention. It has been difficult to find out the extent of the support that exists. Some of it is done through our network of refuge support centres—of course, there is an immigration tie-in there—and some through the Department for Communities and Local Government. The Local Government Association should be thanked, too. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point and it is an argument for his Bill that I would certainly use if I were him.
May I remind hon. Members of the key elements of the Council of Europe convention, which we ratified, as the hon. Gentleman said, in December 2008? This represents a major milestone in the fight against human trafficking, and has strengthened the protection arrangements for victims by granting identified victims an extendable 45-day recovery period and one-year temporary residency permits in certain circumstances. These measures go further than the minimum standards outlined in the convention. The United Kingdom should be proud of that.
Let me explain to the Minister why he is wrong. It is good that the Government have gone for the option of 45 days, but two months for a girl who has been traumatised and subjected to violence is not nearly enough to get her oriented and to help her to give evidence against the very people who have been involved in that violence against her. The Austrians give a year and a work permit or identity card, as do the Italians. The Austrians have an outstanding record of convicting traffickers because the victims feel safe in that country. Here, they fear they might be deported because after two months the period of reflection ends and they are hassled to leave the country. Although it is an improvement on the Council of Europe convention’s 28 days—it might be 45 days; I might have it wrong—the Austrians and the Italians give a year and I would like to think that the British Government might consider so extending the period of reflection.
I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the conjunction that I used: I referred to the granting of an extendable 45-day recovery period and a one-year temporary residency permit in certain circumstances. He may argue that the latter should be automatic. I shall provide a little of the background to decisions on these matters.
There is protection in immigration rules for victims of domestic violence, to whom we provide refuge and can provide indefinite leave to remain. That is desirable, and the House supported the idea. However, it has resulted, in a number of instances—I would say a significant number—of abuse of that route for organised immigration crime purposes, through the use of what I believe those in police enforcement call sleepers. We have had cases of women who have asked to be beaten up so that they can get indefinite leave to remain. It is a sad world, but one has to be aware of that.
I am not suggesting that there is any evidence of such activity in this area; I am saying that we have an obligation to look at the individual when granting the 45-day recovery period and the one-year temporary residency permit. However, it would be foolish of me to say that 45 days is the be-all and end-all; we shall have to see. The policy is welcome and it is above the minimum required under the convention.
In addition, the establishment of a national referral mechanism has provided for the systematic identification of victims within a framework designed to make it easier for organisations to co-operate and share information about potential victims. That brings us to the hoary old chestnut of data sharing. I think that civil libertarians sometimes need to get real about the obstacles that can be put in the way of well-meaning organisations. We have moved forward on that with support from all the parties and local authorities.
We have not been reliant on the ratification of the convention to provide support to victims. We have invested £5.8 million in the POPPY project since 2003 to provide specialist support for victims trafficked into sexual exploitation. That includes as a minimum safe accommodation, advocacy, access to counselling, access to legal advice and interpretation services. The POPPY project has provided support to more than 500 victims of human trafficking since 2003.
A further £3.9 million is being spent over the current and next financial years on specialist services for victims of all forms of human trafficking. That figure includes a grant agreement between the Home Office and Migrant Helpline to provide support and accommodation to identified victims of forced labour. That grant agreement represents a further development in the support mechanism for victims of forced labour. Migrant Helpline, our non-governmental organisation partner, supported 169 people between June 2008 and September 2009 and supported three police operations last year.
That area of work has been enhanced by the creation of the pay and work rights helpline, through which the Greater London authority, the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, HMRC, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—because of the link to agricultural labour—and the Health and Safety Executive work together to deal with multi-complaint issues.
Victims of trafficking can also access the wider provision available to all victims of crime, including the Victim Support service, the service for victims of sexual crimes in England and Wales, on which we have spent £4.65 million, and increased funding for sexual assault referral centres, rape crisis centres and the Survivors Trust.
Child trafficking is a particularly emotive issue for us all. Measures to care for children who are victims of trafficking need to be attuned to the vulnerability of children. The hon. Member for Totnes gave the example of Hillingdon. We have done a great deal of work on biometric fingerprint reading and biometric photographs, which are required on all visas, which means that we are now able to identify a person even if their passport has been destroyed. Identity fraud or misuse is a key weapon of the criminal, and through biometrics we now know who people are, which is a huge advantage in prosecutions and enforcement activities. Again, I wish that Liberty would pay attention to that point. Sometimes, the taking of data can help to protect someone’s civil liberties. What if a victim of child trafficking were told, “We can’t identify you, and we can’t prosecute the criminal exploiting you, because we’re not allowed to take data”? That is not a civil liberties argument by any stretch of the imagination.
On the needs of children, we have established, by giving somebody the job of doing it, joint work with children’s services, the police and other law enforcement agencies, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and, of course, the Human Trafficking Centre. The missing persons taskforce, which was launched by the Prime Minister recently, is looking at how that joint work can be improved.
Recently, child trafficking training for immigration officers and other UKBA staff has been improved, and that ensures the continued awareness of our officers at the border. Let us remember that that now includes customs officials and immigration officials, and involves partnerships with police, including special branch—a special branch from outside London; I cannot remember the name—other specialist agencies and other parts of the security forces, including the intelligence agencies.
We have published revised arrangements and guidance for Crown prosecutors, including on the consideration of cases concerning juveniles found on cannabis farms and involved in other criminal activities. We have stepped up our efforts to tackle the problem of potentially trafficked children going missing from care, the Hillingdon example being prominent in that regard. We have introduced further measures to raise awareness among practitioners and improve their ability to identify children who may have been trafficked into the UK through the application of the national referral mechanism. We also published “Safeguarding Children and Young People from Sexual Exploitation”. A significant amount of work has therefore been done, but we are far from complacent on the issue.
I have talked at some length to try to get across the desirability of that work, which is backed up by the Bill. Let me finish by repeating the offer that I made at the beginning of my remarks. We believe that drafting improvements could be made, but we do not want to stop the Bill, because that would not be right. However, there are some arguments that need to be had.
I thank the Minister for his marathon speech, which was riveting. I think the whole House was engrossed. He was going to talk about the Gabriella case, which he mentioned a short while ago. Before he sits down, will he just say exactly what is happening in that case?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I spoke at length not because I was instructed to do so by the Whips—although as a former Whip, I hasten to add that I would have done, had I been so instructed. Do they not say in this place, “Once a Whip, always a Whip”? I spoke at great length because the subject is hugely important. The core of the hon. Gentleman’s argument is absolutely right. I confess that up to 18 months ago, before I did this job, I did not have a clue about the depth and extent of the problem. I have been appalled as a human being, let alone as a politician, by what goes on.
The case of the lady referred to as Gabriella is one example. UKvisas is an operation of UKBA, and I have been in communication with the chief executive this morning. I have met our ambassador in Moldova in the past few weeks, and I will do what I can to reunite that family as soon as possible. I do not know what the objections of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are, although I can imagine. They are dedicated professional people, but they will have to help. We will do whatwe can.
Perhaps the good side of this job is that sometimes we can intervene and help someone. We brought a girl back from Iraq in similar circumstances a few weeks ago, after a campaign led by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer), so it can be done. I give the hon. Member for Totnes a commitment that I will do what I can to ensure that that is the case.
The hon. Gentleman has reminded me to check that I have answered all the questions. I think I have done so. The hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) spoke for the Liberal Democrats in support of the Bill and it is good to see him in his place. We have our differences with the Conservative Opposition on some areas of policy, particularly on their futile idea of a cap on tier 1 and tier 2, and their misunderstanding of the partnership that exists between border force officers and Her Majesty’s constabulary, but overall we can say that police forces work very closely together.
The hon. Member for Totnes has built a powerful all-party consensus which does not take as its starting point the obvious statement that something should be done, but puts in place strategies that bring about enforcement. He argued for his Bill in that context, not as a token name or day. Some people will say, “Another day off, another week of action, another token gesture.” That is not the intention of the Bill, and it is not how the Government see it.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Ordered, That the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House.
Committee this day.
Occupants of the Chair have deprecated proceeding at once from Second Reading into Committee without notice, since it makes it difficult for Members to table amendments.
Anti-Slavery Day Bill
Considered in Committee.
[Sir Michael Lord in the Chair]
There are some amendments to the Bill. Amendment papers are available in the Vote Office and, for the convenience of Members, they are also available in the Chamber.
With this we may take the following: amendment 2, page 1, line 7, leave out ‘modern-day’.
Amendment 3, page 1, line 10, leave out ‘modern-day’.
Amendment 4, page 1, line 14, leave out ‘modern-day’.
Amendment 5, page 1, line 17, leave out ‘modern-day’.
I shall not detain the Committee long, and I hope the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) will accept the amendments. As he knows from the Second Reading debate and private discussions, one of my concerns about the Bill is about the references to “modern-day” in the context of slavery and to the transatlantic slave trade.
People from the African continent find references to “modern-day” slavery and the transatlantic slave trade in this context somewhat offensive. I know this, as does the hon. Gentleman, I hope, from work that I have done in the Inter-Parliamentary Union. At the IPU Assembly several years ago, I spoke on trafficking and proposed a draft resolution.
The representatives of African countries were insistent that such references be removed because they do not consider it appropriate to compare what is happening now to what happened to people from Africa who were enslaved and taken to the American continent in the 18th and 19th centuries. They do not feel it is appropriate to compare the suffering of their ancestors with the modern position. It would therefore be more inclusive if the amendments were made to tidy up the wording.
I accept that amendment in its entirety.
Amendment 1 agreed to.
Amendments made: 2, in Clause 1, page 1, line 7, leave out “modern day”.
Amendment 3, page 1, line 10, leave out “modern day”.
Amendment 4, page 1, line 14, leave out “modern day”.
Amendment 5, page 1, line 17, leave out “modern day”.—(Mr. Dismore.)
Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Short title and extent
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
I shall try to be helpful—very briefly. At the beginning of my remarks today, I said that there was an offer of parliamentary counsel help on some of the wording in this clause, so I shall not object to it at this stage, but I give notice, out of fairness, that we may wish to introduce amendments in the other place—should the Bill proceed.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 2 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.
Bill, as amended, reported.
Damages (Asbestos-Related Conditions) (No.2) Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Today is Groundhog day for this Bill, because its terms are exactly the same as those of a Bill that passed through the House last year. Unfortunately, there was insufficient time for that Bill to go through the other place before Prorogation last November. It received full Committee and Report stages, however, with amendments moved, discussed and, ultimately, withdrawn, so later today I hope to be able to put the Bill before us through all its stages, not out of disrespect to the House, but to point out the fact that this legislation has already been meaningfully debated.
Most Members know that for 20 years before I entered Parliament I was a personal injury lawyer, and I suppose that I still am: once a lawyer, always a lawyer. As the Minister for Borders and Immigration, said earlier, “Once a Whip, always a Whip.” I have never been a Whip, but I have certainly been a lawyer, and I still have my practising certificate, although I do not currently practice.
This Bill is about pleural plaques, a thickening of the lining of the lung. They are usually visible on an X-ray or a CT scan, and they are caused by exposure to asbestos. It is hard to imagine someone’s fear if they are at risk of developing an evil, disabling illness such as mesothelioma, and there is a statistical connection between the two, although a medical causal connection is debatable. The fact remains, however, that the statistical connection indicates to people that they are at a much higher risk than the population at large of developing mesothelioma. It is a painful and always fatal illness, and during the course of my practice and, indeed, my time in the House, I have met many pleural plaques sufferers who have expressed their strong feelings about the issue and the problems that have recently arisen because of court decisions.
Until recently, pleural plaques were compensated under common law. Since 1984, there have been three cases against the Ministry of Defence, the leading one being Church v. MOD, involving a diagnosis of asbestos-related pleural plaques—or asymptomatic fibrosis on the pleural lining of the lungs, as it is described in the cases. In the Church case, it was decided that the condition constituted an injury, enabling damages to be claimed. The amount of compensation varied, but before the cases that stopped the claims being brought, it was in the region of £7,000 on a provisional damages basis.
In the 2006 case of Rothwell, the Court of Appeal found that pleural plaques were not compensatable, mainly on public policy grounds. The Court refused to aggregate the condition of pleural plaques with the anxiety and distress that they cause, deciding that each individual condition was not compensatable and that the courts could not look at the aggregate of both pleural plaques and the psychological conditions that they cause because the two were separate.
If the psychological condition involved was a recognised psychiatric illness, that would be different. However, the psychological conditions of pleural plaques sufferers do not get so severe as to be considered diagnosable psychiatric illnesses. In this day and age, unfortunately, the legal system still treats injuries to the mind rather more severely than injuries to the body. Compensation is not awarded on a fair basis, comparing one with the other.
I return to the relevant cases. In autumn 2007, the Rothwell case was upheld by the House of Lords in the case of Johnston. In fact, it was the same case; several cases were heard together. The House of Lords upheld the Court of Appeal decision that pleural plaques were not compensatable, and that has been a cause of concern in the wider community and the House ever since. That concern has been the subject of numerous parliamentary questions, early-day motions, amendments to Government Bills and attempts at private Members’ legislation, including my own Bill last year. It has also been raised in I do not know how many Adjournment debates. There is no perfect option for dealing with the issue; various proposals have been debated and suggested but unfortunately the Government have not announced a formal position. That is why this Bill is a good way forward.
Pleural plaques represent a serious condition that affects many people, and doing nothing is simply not an option. My Bill tries to build on what has happened in Scotland, which is ahead of the game. The Scottish Parliament passed its own legislation to restore the position in law to where it was before the cases in the Court of Appeal and House of Lords. That Bill has now achieved Royal Assent in Scotland. There were attempts to challenge its legality through judicial review, but they failed in the Scottish courts; the outer house made a strong judgment that made it clear that certain points, particularly those arising from aspects of the European convention on human rights, were not sustainable.
My Bill is modest; all it seeks to do is turn back the law to where we all thought it was prior to the decisions of the courts. Doing that, however, would mean that the insurers, who were on risk at the time, would meet the liability rather than getting the windfall of having collected the premiums without having to pay out on the risk. The Bill is tightly drawn; it is not the thin end of the wedge and it will not open the floodgates to any form of parallel litigation for other illnesses or injuries. It relates purely and simply to pleural plaques.
The Bill maintains the basic principles of negligence or breach of statutory duty as the test for liability. The burden of proof that the claim exists and should be upheld is still on the claimant. The Bill provides for a suspension of the limitation period from the date of the House of Lords decision until the coming into force of the Bill. That is only fair, but it would not affect any cases that were already settled or decided in the courts. There would be no question of trying to reopen cases that were finished. The Bill also leaves out Scotland, which, as I have said, has made its own arrangements already.
The Bill is an important measure. If pleural plaques were outside the body, there would be no argument about their being compensatable, yet because we cannot see them they do not count, according to the House of Lords. The psychological injury in such circumstances can be looked at by the courts only if there is a physical injury that they consider compensatable. The House of Lords has ruled that the internal scarring of pleural plaques is not compensatable as it would be if it were on the outside, so the psychological consequences cannot be compensated.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for his pursuit of this issue. There is a particularly extraordinary position in relation to psychological damage and it appears to contradict established practice in other areas. I hope that, at the very least, his return to the scene will address that issue.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Basically, the problem is that the test for a physical injury is subjective. It is sometimes referred to as the “thin skull test”—the victim is taken as found, and if they have a thin skull and have had a brick dropped on their head, that is hard luck for the tortfeasor and the victim is compensated according to the injuries sustained. When there is psychiatric injury, that is not the case; it is assessed on an objective basis, with the victim assessed not as found but according to a “reasonable man” test, as it were. That is unfair. Our legal system discriminates against psychiatric injury compared with physical injury.
My concern is that if my Bill does not go through, the campaign for reform of the rules on psychiatric injury in general will gather strength. The system is ripe for reform anyway, but the failure to compensate for pleural plaques, and for associated psychological injury that is less than a diagnosed psychiatric injury, needs to be dealt with now. If it is not, the momentum behind the campaign for widespread reform of psychiatric and psychological injury law will gather much greater momentum and ultimately become irresistible. The Bill is a good halfway house that will alleviate some of the pressure, so that we do not end up in that position.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the legislation in the Scottish Parliament. I recall that when we last debated the issue last April, we noted that the Scottish Parliament had asked for the costs of the implementation of its legislation to be monitored. Does he have any information about the monitoring of costs in Scotland?
I think that legislation has only just come into force, so it would be difficult to monitor the costs so far, but they arise in two situations. One is when the Government are the de facto defendant, often standing in the shoes of a former nationalised industry, and the other is when the defendant is a private company. As I understand it, the Scottish Bill has either only just come into force or is about to, consequent upon the judicial review challenge having failed, so it is too early to discuss whether there are any costs, and if so, what they amount to. I understand the UK Government’s position to be that any costs should fall on the Scottish Government, as I think they now call themselves, rather than on the UK taxpayer. That remains to be seen, and it is a matter for them to negotiate between themselves.
The hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) made the point about the different treatment of psychiatric injury. I believe that the Bill will resolve that issue, because it provides for the illness and injury of pleural plaques to be designated actionable damage, which is the key to unlock compensation for psychological consequences that may be less than a diagnosable psychiatric illness. There could then be compensation both for the pleural plaques themselves and for the lesser psychological consequences, which was what everybody thought the law was before the House of Lords intervened.
I hope that my Bill will find favour with the House, as it did last time. It was extensively debated in the previous Session, so I hope that the House will not only give the Bill a Second Reading today but put it through all its stages, bearing in mind that it has passed them before.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on bringing the Bill back to the House and on his tenacity on this important subject. I mean this with no disrespect to him, but it is very much a lawyer’s Bill. As a layman, I listened to his explanation hoping to find out exactly how the Bill would work. I think I got the general drift, but some of the more intricate parts of it eluded me.
I have a constituency interest, because for many years we had an asbestos factory in the area in which I have always lived. It seems that many people in my constituency suffer from various asbestos-related problems, including mesothelioma. I know the problems that that causes them, both physically and mentally, so anything that we can do to try to alleviate them—not only through compensation, but by recognising that we now understand what can happen—is to be welcomed.
I have listened to the various arguments and looked into terms of the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, and there are some concerns. However, as he said, it has been scrutinised in this House already, so, if possible, we should allow it to go down to the other place. If the Lords have any further worries or questions, it is appropriate that they should raise them there. Saying that, I wish the hon. Gentleman good luck with his Bill.
I apologise to you and to the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for not being as audible as I usually am. I shall therefore be brief, in order to spare the House the horror of listening to my strained voice.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on his persistence in bringing forward this important Bill again. We had a long debate on the matter on 24 April last year. I understand that the Bill has been in Committee since then, and he is right to bring it back here. When we discussed the Bill last year, everyone who spoke, from all parts of the House, expressed their compassion—I certainly did—for those who have worked, sometimes for a lifetime, in conditions that they did not know, and which their then employers were not aware, were dangerous because of the presence of asbestos.
There are now generations of people suffering from asbestos-related illnesses—people who gave a lifetime’s service, not only in private companies, but in the service of our country, doing important jobs in the armed forces and nationalised industries. They are suffering now, but there are generations to come who do not yet know the extent to which they will suffer. I appreciate that that is the point of the hon. Gentleman’s Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) said that this was a lawyer’s Bill. I am with the hon. Member for Hendon on that: perhaps it is a lawyer’s Bill, but I confess to also having been a lawyer once. As I think I mentioned last year, when I was a young articled clerk, a long time ago, I dealt with difficult asbestosis cases.
I did not take the suggestion that the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) made in a pejorative way. My Bill is a lawyer’s Bill in the sense that lawyers can understand it, because it deals with our concepts, but it is also a Bill meant for ordinary, common, working people and their families who have suffered from a debilitating problem.
Of course it is, and in no way was I being pejorative about lawyers. Indeed, I was about to say to the hon. Gentleman that because I have dealt with the matter in a previous professional life—not quite to the same extent as him, but to some extent—I understand only too well why he has brought his Bill forward. It would allow a causal link to be established between certain actions by employers and future illnesses that might arise. I also appreciate that that is where the difficulty lies. As he said, if pleural plaques were on the outside of the body, they would be a recognisable disease and the difficulty would not arise. I fully understand the difficulty of recognising pleural plaques for the unusual condition that it is, and I give him credit for bringing that difficulty before the House for consideration. Pleural plaques do not cause illness or pain—although some argue that they do—but the psychological effects of having them diagnosed affect people and their families, as he has previously explained. The last time we debated this, the hon. Member for Hendon said:
“The problem is that psychological injury in these circumstances can be looked at by the courts only if there is also a physical injury that they consider compensatable. My Bill simply tries to establish that pleural plaques are compensatable, so that a link could therefore be made to the psychological injury.”—[Official Report, 24 April 2009; Vol. 491, c. 534.]
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point; I recall him giving that clarification of the causal link theory for the benefit of those normal people who are not steeped in personal injury law.
I also appreciate, however, that there are various views in the medical profession on the way in which pleural plaques can be interpreted as affecting a person’s health. I will reiterate the evidence of Dr. Robin Rudd, a recognised expert on this matter. He has said:
“Pleural plaques are not thought to lead directly to any of the other benign varieties of asbestosis-induced pleural disease”.
Dr. John Moore-Gillon of the British Lung Foundation has also said:
“Pleural plaques do not themselves ‘turn malignant’ and become a malignant mesothelioma. They do not in themselves cause asbestosis to develop, nor do pleural plaques increase the risk of lung cancer, and they are a different condition from diffuse pleural thickening.”
I know that the hon. Gentleman will accept that those are correct medical diagnoses.
Pleural plaques are evidence of exposure to asbestos. The question of a medical link between the one and the other may be arguable, but the statistical link is not. We know the number of people who suffer from pleural plaques, and the number of people who get mesothelioma, and the one is evidence of risk of the other. That is what causes the psychological symptoms. A person who has pleural plaques will know that they have been exposed to the risks posed by asbestos, and it therefore preys on their mind that they are at greater risk of contracting mesothelioma.
I entirely accept the hon. Gentleman’s explanation. He makes his case very well.
We are speaking today about the psychological effect on a person of knowing that they have been diagnosed with pleural plaques. The difficulty is with the principle of compensation. It is unfortunate that the Government have not introduced a similar Bill. They have shown some enthusiasm for this one, and for this issue over the years, but not enough to introduce a Government Bill with the full backing that such a Bill would have. I do not mean political backing; I mean the access to the full medical evidence and all the other kinds of backing that a Government Bill would have behind it. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his persistence in bringing his Bill forward again.
I am worried that the hon. Gentleman has suggested that all stages of the Bill should be dealt with today. It is a short, precise, well-constructed Bill, but none of us has had the time or the opportunity to look in any detail at the matters that will be considered in its Committee stage.
I know that the hon. Lady was present at the previous Bill’s Committee stage last time, but because of a slight hiccup, which we need not go into, she was unable to participate in the Committee. This Bill is identical to the one that went through its Committee stage at that time. It was subject to amendments tabled and debated in Committee, as well as to amendments tabled and debated on Report, so it had had full consideration by the House before it received its Third Reading last October.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that explanation; he said exactly what I expected him to say. He is right that a technical error prevented me from taking part in Committee, but I witnessed those proceedings and I cannot disagree that the Bill was scrutinised to some extent. I nevertheless hope that if the Bill passes through the House today, it will be properly scrutinised in the other place. Although I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of the matters in the Bill—indeed, I welcome the clarification of the law that it entails—it is also important that we observe the proper procedures of Parliament when passing legislation, not least because this legislation is important and has far-reaching consequences, affecting many people. It may cost a lot of money and it is Parliament’s duty to balance the needs and rights of the individual with those of the taxpayer and the public purse. I put it no more strongly than that, but I express my concern.
Ultimately, we are talking about being fair to people who, through no fault of their own, have contracted what might turn into a terrible disease. I approach the issue with compassion and understanding for the individuals concerned and their families. That said, it is important to leave sufficient time to hear what the Minister has to say, so I shall conclude to allow him to address us.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing a Second Reading for this Bill, which deals with an extremely important issue. Issues of principle are raised, as well as practical issues; above all, this subject involves great human suffering.
I pay tribute to all who have followed the debate over many years, particularly to Members who have pursued the campaign. As we have just heard, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon has been extremely diligent; this is his second attempt to get this Bill through the House. He deserves all our thanks for his persistence and diligence in this matter. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson), for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) and for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), who have been equally diligent and persistent on behalf of their constituents. Many other Members have been involved, as we have received representations from them, from trade unions and from others who are deeply concerned about this issue.
Those who have followed the debate over the years will know that this is my first time speaking from the Dispatch Box on this particular subject. It is not, however, the first time that I have had occasion to deal with the issues raised in today’s debate. As the Member of Parliament for North Swindon, I am acutely aware of these problems. As the House will know, Swindon is a great industrial town: it always has been; it was created by Brunel as a great railway town. It had great railway works, which sustained the town and helped it to grow over many decades.
Very large numbers of my constituents worked in the railway works, so they were exposed to asbestos. Mesothelioma, a particularly horrible disease, is, because of its prevalence, well known locally as “the Swindon cancer”. Many constituents have had to live with it for many years, so I am deeply familiar with the problem. I have had to deal with some heartbreaking cases. I will always remember the pensioner who came to see me. Our meeting took a long time because he could not speak for tears, as he tried to describe how his wife had died from mesothelioma. He had not been diagnosed with it, but his wife had. She had contracted the cancer because every day when he came home from work, he had taken off his work clothes, which she washed for him before making his tea. As a result of that act of spousal duty, she had contracted this awful illness. He was consumed with grief at the loss of his wife, but also with guilt because his work had resulted in her contracting such a terrible illness.
As I have said, this subject involves complex issues of legal principle, difficult practical issues and weighty financial issues, but above all it is about human suffering of an especially acute nature. I know that all the Members who have raised it, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, are deeply conscious that none of us should ever forget that human suffering is at the root of it.
Mesothelioma is a particularly unpleasant cancer. We have seen great progress in treatment of a range of cancers, but unfortunately we have not yet found a way of dealing with diffuse mesothelioma. It is always fatal and involves a very poor life expectancy of, on average, between 12 and 18 months following diagnosis, which makes the diagnosis particularly hard to accept. That bears directly on the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon about the psychological damage that can be caused by pleural plaques, which, as he has said, indicate exposure to asbestos. Those who are diagnosed with them will inevitably start to wonder whether they will develop mesothelioma, which is a particularly horrible illness because, I understand, very little palliative care is available. It is painful, and, as I have said, the diagnosis is invariably fatal.
The Government take mesothelioma extremely seriously, but it is difficult to deal with because, as with pleural plaques, the legal background is very complex. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) was mildly critical of the Government—although not up to her usual coruscating standards—for not acting more swiftly, and I appreciate the urgency of the matter, but, as I have said, the issues involved are complex.
For many years, the defining mesothelioma case was that of Fairchild in 2002. In that case, the House of Lords held that a person who contracted mesothelioma after wrongful exposure to asbestos at different times by more than one employer could sue any of those employers, even if the employee could not prove which exposure had caused the disease. That is particularly important, because exposure to just one strand of asbestos can be clinically responsible for the development of mesothelioma. It is not a question of sustained exposure over many years. All of us Members who have encountered mesothelioma in our constituencies know that our constituents have often been employed in several workplaces, and that the same workplace may have had different owners. It has been very hard to prove legally which exposure led to the disease, and the Fairchild case was therefore extremely important.
When another case was brought, that of Barker v. Corus, the House of Lords decided that in a case within the boundaries of the Fairchild exception in which someone had contracted mesothelioma after wrongful exposure to asbestos at different times by more than one responsible person, the damages were to be apportioned among those responsible for the wrongful exposure according to their relative degree of contribution to the chance of a person contracting the disease. That means, in practice, that a claimant must trace all relevant defendants as far as possible before liability can be apportioned and compensation paid, and that the risk of any of those defendants’ being insolvent and unable to pay the appropriate share falls on the claimant.
That decision was taken in May 2006, and I am sure that Members will understand the huge burden it placed on any potential claimants, as well as the deep distress it must have caused them. I make no criticism of the House of Lords in this case; it was applying legal principles in a way that it has complete discretion to do, and it is not for this House to criticise its decisions. However, the emotional and human consequences of that decision were profound, not least because when someone is diagnosed with mesothelioma, their life expectancy is typically 12 to 18 months. As I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon will understand from his previous life as a lawyer, the prospect of someone in such a situation having to go through such a tortuous legal process, and of having to try to identify all the possible employers in whose employ they might have been exposed to asbestos, would be enormously difficult and time consuming, and in practice would make it more or less impossible actually to get any compensation.
When this became clear, the Government moved with great speed. The House of Lords made its judgment in May 2006, and by July 2006 the Compensation Act 2006 had received Royal Assent. Through that Act, the Government took measures to rectify the Barker v. Corus judgment by enabling claimants to sue any of the negligent persons and then to recover 100 per cent. of the compensation on a joint and several basis. It would then be a matter for the defendants to apportion the damages they had paid between themselves.
That was clearly the right thing to do. It threw the burden of proof, and the responsibility for seeing through all the complex legal processes, on to the employer, not the mesothelioma sufferer at such a difficult and painful time for them and their families, when they and their loved ones are having to come to terms with this dread diagnosis. When we could see a way clear to take action, we took it, and we did so with great speed. In my time in the House, I cannot think of another occasion when any Government have moved with such speed to rectify a situation.
We will, therefore, move as quickly as we possibly can, but these are very complex and difficult issues, and I want to say a little about them. This Bill passed through a number of stages in the previous parliamentary Session and there have been several Adjournment debates on the subject it addresses. The issues have been raised with great force and cogency by a number of Members, therefore, and I am extremely grateful to them for everything that they have done to highlight the issue and to keep it in the public mind. The Government are sympathetic. I am going to respond very sympathetically to the Bill today, and I should also point out that an identical Bill is today receiving its Second Reading in another place.
The Bill provides for asymptomatic pleural plaques and the separate condition of asymptomatic asbestosis to constitute actionable damage under the law of tort for which damages may be awarded. The overwhelming balance of expert professional opinion is that about 99 per cent. of pleural plaques cases are asymptomatic and therefore difficult to diagnose, and only 1 per cent. are symptomatic. It is important to stress that in that relatively small number of cases where symptoms are exhibited so the condition is readily identifiable, it remains possible to bring a claim under civil law. This Bill therefore addresses asymptomatic pleural plaques. It also contains provisions on limitation and retrospectivity.
For the sake of clarity, do the Government intend that asymptomatic pleural plaques, as a disease, will not give rise to compensation but will merely be noted in order to establish the causal link between the employment and the possible future development of asbestosis or other serious diseases such as mesothelioma? Is the Minister talking about that causal link, rather than having actual compensation for pleural plaques?
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will go through the argument first before I reach the conclusion regarding our attitude to the Bill. On her point about causality—if I understand her correctly—my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon has already set out the position clearly. The existence of pleural plaques shows exposure to asbestos, but, as I think is acknowledged widely, it does not mean that anyone who has pleural plaques will inevitably get, or is likely to get, mesothelioma. There is no causal link in that way, but it does indicate exposure to asbestos, and for that reason it is completely understandable that people who have pleural plaques will begin to worry, often very intensely—to the extent that, as my hon. Friend has said, it becomes very disruptive of their lives. To that extent, pleural plaques fall into the category of illness, so it is understandable that the existence of pleural plaques should often cause intense and disruptive worry about the possibility of getting mesothelioma.
In passing, I point out that I agree with my hon. Friend about the distinction that we in this House, as well as the courts, have drawn in the past between mental and physical incapacity. I have already made it clear regarding another Bill—I will not dwell on this, Mr. Deputy Speaker—that in relation to representation in this House, we should not draw any distinction between mental and physical incapacity. It is not tenable, and I am optimistic that this House will make progress on that area. The point that my hon. Friend raised about that distinction was very well made.
The Bill also contains provisions on limitation and retrospectivity to enable claims to be brought in cases that were stayed pending the House of Lords decision on pleural plaques, and in those which have not been concluded subsequently. Again, my hon. Friend spoke about that. The issue of pleural plaques, not because of causality but because of the linkage with the dread disease mesothelioma, has excited considerable interest and attention in this House, the other place and outside. I therefore hope that it will help if I explain the current position before turning to my hon. Friend’s Bill in detail.
As hon. Members know, the Government carried out a consultation exercise on the question of whether pleural plaques should be made compensatable under the civil law. The consultation paper proposed action to improve understanding of pleural plaques, to try to deal with the intense mental anguish that can often be caused, and to make sure that people understand that if they are diagnosed with pleural plaques, it does not inevitably mean they will develop mesothelioma. In the consultation paper, we proposed action to improve understanding in this way, and to provide support and reassurance to those diagnosed with pleural plaques to help allay their concerns. This is an important step forward, and it shows the Government’s recognition of the importance of this issue. It is also a tribute to the work of my hon. Friend.
The consultation paper also considered the issues arising in relation to changing the law of negligence, and invited views on whether this would or would not be appropriate.
Clearly those issues stretch far wider than this issue, important though it is. The law of negligence permeates almost every area of public life in one way or another, so it is important that the consequences of any change we might make on this particular issue are thought through and discussed as fully as possible. That was a subject addressed by the consultation paper, which also sought views on the merits of offering no-fault financial support to people diagnosed with pleural plaques, and on two possible ways of doing that.
Although the consultation paper was an important step forward, I do understand all the concerns expressed by hon. Members about the time it has taken to reach conclusions in the light of the consultation. As I have said, where we have felt that we could act speedily to resolve the situation, we have done so. We have done so specifically in respect of the legal situation that developed in 2006 in relation to mesothelioma.
The House of Lords decision has raised extremely complex and difficult issues, which, inevitably, have required very careful consideration within government and more widely. It has also been very important to look beyond the issue of pleural plaques to consider how people who have been exposed to asbestos—irrespective of whether or not they have developed pleural plaques or mesothelioma—can be supported much more widely. I am sure the House will understand that anyone who knows they have been exposed to asbestos will worry, so we must consider what we can do to support them. We have made it clear throughout that in our view it is important to ensure that any decisions are reached on the basis of the best available medical and other professional evidence on the nature of pleural plaques. For that reason, we have commissioned and published reviews of the medical evidence carried out on behalf of the chief medical officer and by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council to help to inform consideration of the issue. Very helpful further discussions have also taken place with key medical experts on the medical evidence.
As I have said, it has been important to explore how we can support everybody who has been exposed to asbestos. I hope that the House will agree that the Government have been consistent in their commitment to give people suffering from mesothelioma and other serious asbestos-related diseases the help and support that they deserve, and we want to build on the positive steps that we have taken.
With that in mind, my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary has confirmed that the Government are actively considering measures to make the UK a global leader in research for the alleviation, prevention and cure of asbestos-related diseases, and to help to speed up compensation claims for those who develop serious asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma. That is a huge undertaking and the Government are making a serious commitment. The work will include examining the process for tracking and tracing employment and insurance records—the House will understand how important that is in this context—as well as looking into the psychological and other support given to individuals who are unable to trace such records. The Government will shortly be announcing further details of our plans on these extremely important issues. I hope that the House will recognise—I think it will—just how important this is in taking this debate forward.
It might help if I were to tell the House a little about the consultation and the responses to it. We will be publishing this shortly, but I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon will want to know what has happened as a result of the consultation. Some 224 responses were received, of which 163 expressed the view that pleural plaques should be compensatable in some form. Slightly more than two thirds of those who responded directly to the question regarding overturning the House of Lords decision supported changing the law. Views were equally divided on whether the proposal to increase awareness of the nature of pleural plaques would be helpful. I must say that there was only limited support for a no-fault scheme and a number of those who did express support for such a scheme made it clear that it was very much a second preference for them if the Government decided that they would not overturn the House of Lords decision.
I have been listening with great interest to the Minister and the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). Have any of the responses that have been made to the Minister come from medical sources? Can he confirm—this is my main point—that the cause of pleural plaques is always exposure to asbestos or can there, in some cases, be other causes?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question and for the interest he is taking in this case. I cannot give him an exact breakdown of those responding, but we will be publishing the results. On the origins of pleural plaques, I am afraid that I cannot give him a definitive medical answer. I am very happy to write to him on that point. I hope he will correct me if I am wrong, but I think he is driving at the question of responsibility, liability and causality. I am happy to give way to him so that he can make that clear.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time. I have no doubt that there is a strong argument for compensation per se for pleural plaques. He has already pointed out, quite rightly, that the source of the exposure to the asbestos has to be identified. I wanted to have it explained to the House that there can also be no doubt that the symptoms and the existence of pleural plaques would always be owing to exposure to asbestos and not to some other toxic substance.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that point.
I am happy to be helped out by my hon. Friend.
I want to make two points. First, the Bill makes it clear that the only pleural plaques that would be compensatable under it would be those that are asbestos-related. Secondly, I am not aware of any other source of potential pleural plaques but, come what may, it is still for the claimant to prove that their pleural plaques are asbestos-related.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I was going to go on to make exactly that point, but I am very grateful to him for clarifying it.
The hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) made a very specific point. I do not want to mislead the House. I am not aware of any other possible source of pleural plaques other than exposure to asbestos, but I would not like to give the hon. Gentleman a definitive opinion. As he will know, medical opinion on these matters varies. Some doctors can always be found to take a contrary view. I would not like to mislead him by giving him a definitive answer, and all I can tell him at the moment is that I am not aware of other causes and, in any event, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon has pointed out, that has no bearing on this Bill.
Before I conclude, I want to make a point about another complexity of this issue that we have to deal with in making progress. The House will be aware that claims management companies have been involved in this field. This is a particularly difficult issue. As 99 per cent. of pleural plaques are asymptomatic, there has been quite a vigorous campaign by claims management companies and some solicitors to try to persuade people who might have been exposed to asbestos to undertake scans. This has given rise to considerable disquiet.
I know that concerns have been expressed about the possible exploitation of vulnerable people. People have asked whether claims management companies can be prevented from acting in this area. Suggestions have been made that only those who were diagnosed by a registered doctor should be able to bring claims. This is a difficult and complex point and it was not directly raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, but I want to address it because I know that it comes up a lot and that people can get very angry about the exploitation of vulnerable people.
Claims management companies are already regulated under the Compensation Act 2006: regulations control any business offering claims management services and should prevent any malpractice from developing. The introduction of an absolute bar on claims management companies providing services related to pleural plaques would require primary legislation. If we tried to prohibit claims being made when they were the result of a commercial CT scan or when medical evidence did not originate from a registered medical source, that would cause significant concern about compatibility with article 6 of the European convention on human rights, as it would bar access to a court for a claimant who may, in the end, have a genuine cause for action.
My right hon. Friend can square the circle in a relatively straightforward way. He does not have to use primary legislation. This is a question of what evidence is sufficient to satisfy the court, rather than one of debarring anyone from bringing their claim to court. The court may not be satisfied if the evidence is not strong enough—a matter that can be dealt with through the rules of court.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but it does not address the issue of vulnerable people being exploited for commercial gain. However, those considerable problems should not stand in the way of our trying to make progress on the substantive issue that he has raised.
I want to put it on the record again that the Government are firmly opposed to the use of scan vans, as they are called. The provision of X-rays and CT scans is governed by two sets of regulations, which make it clear that initiating an X-ray or a CT scan purely for the purpose of obtaining compensation is not justified, and in those circumstances the Healthcare Commission could be asked to investigate. We would try to deal with the problem on that basis.
I want to say a little about the views that medical experts have expressed about the anxiety that people experience when they are diagnosed with pleural plaques. There is, it is fair to say, general agreement that a diagnosis of pleural plaques is likely to cause anxiety. That is a common-sense view. However, there are different views—as is inevitable, as I said, where professional opinion is involved—about how that should be addressed clinically and how far the level of anxiety can be controlled. One perspective was that a rational, honest explanation of the risks from exposure to asbestos could help patients, but that it would be impossible to alleviate the anxiety, that concerns were understandable and that those involved should be compensated.
The other perspective was that if the condition and the risks were properly and clearly explained, most people would be reassured, and offering compensation would send a mixed message to patients and could increase anxiety. In addition, because there is no direct link between the existence of pleural plaques and the development of mesothelioma, sending people to have scans might be a riskier process for many because it would lead to them being exposed to radiation, which holds some risk, albeit not a huge one. However, given that many people with pleural plaques never develop mesothelioma, it would be an unnecessary risk.
The Minister may in his last few remarks have answered my question. Does he agree that where those scans are not necessary, it is vital that they do not take place? He and the hon. Member for Hendon have both argued very strongly—I do not disagree—that it is the psychological effect of knowing that one has pleural plaques that causes the injury, rather than the pleural plaques themselves, in cases where they do not develop into a more serious disease. Therefore, not knowing that one has pleural plaques is a better position to be in than knowing that one has them.
The hon. Lady puts the point pretty well, and she raises an important psychological, and, indeed, philosophical, question. I think that the whole House deplores the use of scan vans. We are talking about people who seek to exploit the potentially highly vulnerable, and who prey on their anxiety and worry for commercial gain. That is not acceptable and we deplore the practice. I have outlined some of the measures available to prevent it, and I hope that our message is going out loud and clear.
I want to talk briefly about some of the new evidence that may be coming forward from the United States and France, and about the meeting of medical experts to which I referred earlier. At that meeting, a UK case study was discussed and it was suggested that, in that individual case, pain could have been associated with pleural plaques rubbing against a person’s ribcage. If that were to be the case, it would change the nature of the issue. However, the experts noted that no direct causative link to the plaques had been established. In any event, it is already accepted that pleural plaques can involve symptoms in a small minority of cases. Recent French research focused on the relationship between cumulative exposure to asbestos and the development of pleural plaques, rather than the medical nature of the plaques themselves.
The Bill has to be considered in the context of all those developments. It represents one possible approach to the issue of pleural plaques. I have set out some of the other dimensions of the issue on which the Government want to make progress, but there are a number of other approaches, and there are wider issues surrounding asbestos-related diseases. We want to ensure that all of them are considered fully and that the best response is identified, and we are doing that as quickly as we can. As we are still assessing what the Government response should be on pleural plaques and the wider issues affecting those suffering from asbestos-related diseases, it is not possible today to give a firm indication of what the Government’s ultimate position on the Bill will be. However, on that basis I can confirm that I am content for the Bill to proceed today.
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful for comments from Members from across the House. We have aired the issue yet again; I have lost count of the number of times that we have debated pleural plaques in the House. I am not sure that I have added greatly to the knowledge of the House or the general public, but we emphasised some of the arguments, and I hope that the House will give the Bill a fair wind.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Ordered, That the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House.
Committee this day.
Occupants of the Chair have deprecated proceeding at once from Second Reading into Committee without notice, since it makes it difficult for Members to table amendments.
Damages (Asbestos-Related Conditions) (No. 2) Bill
Considered in Committee.
[Sir Michael Lord in the Chair]
Clauses 1 to 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.
Bill reported, without amendment.
I shall not detain the House long, but I want to say a few words about the Government’s position. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) is pleased that we have made so much progress on the Bill—I know that he has been here before. The Government want to resolve the issue, and again I pay tribute to him, to my hon. Friends the Members for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson), for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) and for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) who are not here today, and to all the hon. Members who participated in the debate today and who have made representations to the Government over the past few months.
As we have heard, the issue is extremely important for many, many of our constituents, affecting every aspect of their lives. Because of that, there should be no doubt about the Government’s determination to resolve the issue. The fact that we have not yet been able to do so is not an indication of any lack of will on our part. There has been huge activity. Many Members of the House will be aware how much work has been continuing on the part of officials throughout Whitehall to try and resolve the issue once and for all.
It is a feature of our system of government that from time to time the courts produce judgments that throw public policy into disarray, and the Government then have to react. We must react in a way that is sustainable and which sends the courts a clear framework and a clear message about the will of the House. We have to make sure that we have covered every dimension. I hope I have shown today just how complex this area is.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon has performed an invaluable public service, for which all my constituents will be extremely grateful to him. In saying that, I am sure I speak for most Members of the House. However, he is dealing with only one aspect. It is important that we try to achieve a comprehensive solution, and I think we are not far off that. Today has been another step forward. It is not the final resolution, but we are not far off that stage. It will almost certainly not be me who stands at the Dispatch Box to announce further progress, but I am sure that before too long, a Minister—
I hope I can take that as a compliment from the hon. Gentleman. It will not be me because, in practical terms, the matter does not fall to my ministerial responsibility. I was pleased to be able to be present today because, as I explained to the House earlier, I have a distinct constituency interest in the matter, which has been of great concern to me as the Member of Parliament for North Swindon, but normally another Minister would be at the Dispatch Box. The hon. Gentleman should read nothing untoward into that, other than an allocation of responsibilities within the Ministry of Justice. As I said, I was pleased to be here today for a debate on a matter of intense importance to my constituents in Swindon.
I hope my hon. Friend will feel that I have been positive and constructive in my comments in moving the Bill forward. At some point in the near future a Minister—it may be me, but probably not—will stand at the Dispatch Box with an indication of how we intend to resolve the issue.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who was perhaps being tactful. The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) may have been trying to tease from me the date of the general election, because as the House will know, I am not standing for re-election. He may have been trying delicately to discern whether the announcement would take place before the general election, and the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) may have been after the same thing. I certainly hope that it takes place while I am still a Member, so that I can report to my constituents in North Swindon that this Government have taken decisive action on pleural plaques, just as we have done on that dread disease of mesothelioma, which has caused such anguish for so many people.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.
Employers’ Liability Insurance Bureau Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This Bill relates to another aspect of an issue that we just explored. I took some comfort from what the Justice Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) said in response to the previous debate, because legislation is starting to go in the same direction as the Government. The Bill is about resolving a real problem that arises particularly but not exclusively in asbestos cases.
Since 1969, employers have been compulsorily required to take out insurance against injury and disease for their employees—the Employers’ Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969. I have not checked but I vaguely recall from my days in practice that that legislation began as a private Member’s Bill, too. One problem is that a small number of employers, despite that legal requirement, do not take out insurance. A bigger problem is when employers have insurance, go out of business and, decades later, an employee finds that they have contracted an industrial disease, such as mesothelioma, and needs to claim compensation. The real problem is trying to track back to find out who the employer was and, more importantly, who the employer’s insurers were at the time. That is a difficult, time-consuming and, ultimately in many cases, fruitless task. My Bill tries to provide an answer: an insurer of last resort.
If people are injured in a road accident involving a hit-and-run or uninsured driver, the insurer of last resort is the Motor Insurers’ Bureau. It has been around since the 1940s and was introduced when the then Government said to the motor insurance industry, “Unless you get your house in order and produce your own insurer of last resort arrangements, we will legislate to do so.” It is now a requirement under European Union law to introduce a system to compensate victims of uninsured motorists. However, there is no similar provision for victims of uninsured employers or employers whose insurance company has disappeared, if it ever existed in the first place. My Bill therefore tries to plug that gap.
I proposed the Bill last year in exactly the same terms; I am a persistent chap, as everybody knows. It took eight attempts to get the Crown Employment (Nationality) Bill through, and now it is part of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. We have just seen a second attempt at the pleural plaques Bill, and this is my second attempt with this Bill, although I do not suspect that we will get very far with it today.
Last year the Government indicated that they were not sympathetic to the Bill, but I understand from my right hon. Friend’s earlier comments in response to the pleural plaques debate that they now look more sympathetically on the issue. Indeed, I have discussed it with my noble. Friend Lord McKenzie, a Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions, who suggested that the Government were now looking more favourably at it; and I hope that before long we will see Government consultation on how such a scheme might be established.
The proposal is relatively straightforward; it is based on the Motor Insurers’ Bureau arrangement; and it will provide a compensation regime when an employer has become insolvent and has no employers’ liability insurance, when the insurer cannot be traced, or for any employer—
The Deputy Speaker interrupted the business (Standing Order No. 11(2)).
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 26 February.
Business without Debate
contaminated blood (support for infected and bereaved persons) bill [lords]
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 26 February.
marriage (wales) bill [lords]
Bill read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).
business of the house
That, in respect of the Terrorist Asset-Freezing (Temporary Provisions) Bill, notices of Amendments, new Clauses and new Schedules to be moved in Committee may be accepted by the Clerks at the Table before the Bill has been read a second time.—(Kerry McCarthy.)
Rail Services (Sydenham Corridor)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Kerry McCarthy.)
I am most grateful to Mr. Speaker for allowing me this opportunity to raise an issue that is of considerable concern to my constituents in the Forest Hill-Sydenham area. I have raised the matter on two other occasions during the 18 years in which I have been a Member. This is the third time, although the specific issue is not the same. The Table Office has rules about putting down questions; it says that they can be refused if they are part of a campaign. I would not like to think that anybody believed that I did not have a campaign on behalf of my constituents and their rail transport requirements in our corner of south-east London.
No London borough has as high a proportion of its residents working outside it as Lewisham does. Transport links of all kinds—not just rail, but bus; we do not have an underground service yet, although we will in a few short months—are crucial to the social and economic well-being of the area. They have a double benefit: they make the place easier for people to live in and travel to work from, and they attract people into the area for work, social and recreational purposes.
In recent years, there have been many improvements in services, not only in my constituency but in Lewisham more broadly. Perhaps the most notable was the docklands light railway extension to Lewisham via Greenwich, from the rather obscure terminus of Mudchute gardens on the Isle of Dogs. That has undoubtedly improved connections to Lewisham. Furthermore, bus services have been considerably improved since the advent of Transport for London and the directly elected Mayor of London.
More recently, Eurostar services have been transferred from Waterloo to St. Pancras International. That has released further slots on the surrounding railway infrastructure, which has allowed more services—not into my constituency, but into nearby stations such as Penge West and Sydenham Hill, which are used by many people from my constituency. Great improvements have been made in the recent past. Without doubt, however, the greatest improvement will come with the advent of the East London line, which is due to commence services in May, just a few months’ time.
I speak with feeling about the extension of the East London line because I have been campaigning for it since I was first elected to Lewisham council in 1974. That is some 36 years. There is a Chinese proverb—an old Chinese proverb, as they say, but when was the last time we heard of a new one?—that states that success has a thousand parents but failure is an orphan. I claim to be one of the 1,000 parents who are the progenitors of the East London line extension through my constituency into Crystal Palace and on to West Croydon. It forms just part of the London Overground project, which will go north of the river, utilising the current East London line, to Dalston and then eventually on to various other points on the northern part of the London Overground system, to provide real alternatives to people in my constituency and surrounding areas as regards their transport options.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I would claim to be one of the other parents, and we are all very pleased about the regenerative effect that public transport investment has. The Government have done very well in their investment in London’s transport, which was particularly good under the previous Mayor. Is it not the case that given the Government’s strong emphasis on investing in east-west routes, as Members representing constituencies with strong north-south trends we must remember the importance of continued investment in those routes, such as Thameslink?
Yes, I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. If he is claiming partial parentage of the East London line extension, I have to say that our relationship was very distant, if not non-existent, but in our part of south London we are all delighted to see it come to pass. The tendency that he mentions has traditionally been a problem for large parts of the capital that are not served by the underground system. Radial transport links are very strong, but lateral ones have not been, and the impetus of recent years has been to address that issue. Rather than ship everybody into the centre of town and then out again for work, social or recreational purposes, it is better to have lateral links. That is a great advantage to us, as he appreciates, because there will be an opportunity for us to travel to large parts of the capital without the need to go through London Bridge or to Cannon Street or Charing Cross.
I shall make some comments about Thameslink in a moment. The Thameslink programme will cause a lot of disruption and inconvenience in the short term, particularly to those of us closer to the centre of London, but over time it will prove to be a worthwhile investment and a considerable benefit to south London and London more broadly. As a key international centre and our national capital, London relies on its transport links more than anything. It needs to sustain the ability to move people around in large numbers very rapidly, and we can all recognise that without that, it would not be the centre that it is.
The hon. Gentleman encroached upon the next part of my comments.
Not at all, I accept the inevitability of these things on occasion. Over the years there has been support for the plan for the East London line extension, particularly from the former Mayor and the Greater London authority. I thank them, as I have before in the Chamber, for their determination to turn the current East London line, which is little more than a cross-river shuttle to the east of Tower bridge, into a genuinely beneficial, sustainable and crucial link in London’s transport network by increasing services from Croydon and Crystal Palace right through to Dalston, and beyond that to Highbury and Islington and elsewhere. The next stage, which will not run through my constituency, is the continuation of the service through Peckham and on to Clapham Junction, which will be a major adjunct to the services in that part of the world.
Let me make it as clear as I can to my hon. Friend the Minister that my constituents welcome unreservedly the extension of the East London line into our part of the world, and our appearance on the London tube map, particularly as we have some of the most congested commuter lines in the whole country. However, various aspects of that introduction might not be as beneficial to my constituents as they might otherwise appear. Transport for London has taken over the running of all the stations between East Croydon and London Bridge, including Crystal Palace, which means that all local stations are now staffed throughout the day, from the first train to the last, meaning a far safer and more secure environment for passengers. TfL plans a complete refurbishment of those stations over time, which will include new indicator boards, increased CCTV and new public address systems. My experience in recent years is that railway public address systems are far more comprehensible than they were in my youth. That is to everybody’s benefit, but it also increases the security that people feel when using public transport systems, and therefore increases the likelihood that they will use them. That is to be welcomed unconditionally.
On 2 January—this was slightly delayed, because of decisions by the Mayor, but it was none the less welcome—the Oyster card system and pay-as-you-go were introduced on all suburban services right across the capital. That is a huge advance. One needs to use an Oyster card only once to realise the benefits of the system, and that is without mentioning its interoperability between different modes of transport. Before the end of this year, all platforms on the line will be lengthened to accommodate 10-carriage trains to and from London Bridge, rather than the current eight-carriage trains. The East London line will start in May, giving us eight trains an hour in each direction between Dalston in the north, and West Croydon and Crystal Palace in the south. Finally, a few years on, in 2015, the line will become part of the Thameslink network, so that the four trains an hour that currently terminate at London Bridge will instead continue north, thus allowing direct services to Blackfriars, Farringdon and, in particular, St. Pancras International for the Eurostar.
I am also delighted to see the reappearance of something that I believed to be little more than a pipedream when I was growing up in my constituency in south-east London, namely the extension of the Bakerloo line. In those days it was just a piece of imagineering, as they call it these days: someone drew a line on a map and said, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea if, instead of terminating at the Elephant and Castle, the Bakerloo line went on, down through south-east London to Bromley and places south?” There was never any real backing for such a project, but now it is back on the agenda. However, I suspect that its prospects might be somewhat less encouraging under the current Mayor than they would have been under his predecessor or, let us hope, they will be under a successor with a more enlightened attitude towards public transport.
The Southern services into London Bridge are the mainstay of the commuter services from my constituency. It is the threat to those services posed by the introduction of the East London line that I wish to draw to the House’s attention today. On all surveys, the route to and from London Bridge will still be the principal route used by more than 70 per cent. of my constituents. They have just lost the Charing Cross service, even though it was only an off-peak service, because during the development of the Southeastern timetable, which started on 13 December, it was identified that in order to make the incorporation of the high-speed service to and from Kent workable, significant limitations would need to be imposed on the through-London Bridge pathways for other operators. The long and short of that was that Southern lost its pathways into Charing Cross and now terminates all services at London Bridge.
Some would say, “Well, how much more difficult is it to get a train from Charing Cross and change at London Bridge? Those services still exist.” That is true, but for my constituencies attending social, entertainment and recreational events in the west end in the evening—those going to the theatre, to the cinema, to restaurants, and so on—the direct service from Charing Cross to Honor Oak Park, Forest Hill and Sydenham was immensely important. That service has now been lost and, sadly, there is little or no hope for its reintroduction, because those pathways have gone. Some of my more suspicious constituents—it may come as a shock that, along with most other Members of Parliament, I have such constituents—think that, because Southeastern and Southern are owned by the same holding company, Govia, this was just a carve-up of the services between the two companies. I do not believe that to be the case. I think that genuine consideration for improving the service across the south-east as a whole was at the heart of this decision. As in most equations, however, some win and some lose.
The crux of the problem involves the off-peak services. During the route utilisation strategy investigation, fears were expressed that morning and evening services into London Bridge would be cut from their present level by at least two trains an hour. Fortunately, the morning peak service has now been secured. That is probably the most crucial element of the transport patterns in my area. However, the off-peak and evening service has now been cut by two trains an hour. My constituents—particularly the members of the Sydenham Society and the Forest Hill Society who have done a lot of campaigning on these issues—would like to know why the East London line should not suffer a reduction, instead of cutting the service on the London Bridge line by two trains an hour. If it proves more beneficial over time for the East London line to provide extra services, the number of trains could be increased, but why should my constituents have to suffer the possible inconvenience of having an established and well-used service reduced?
I understand that complicated calculations have had to be made in relation to the introduction of what is undeniably the great advantage of extending the East London line, but why should the existing services be put at risk when introducing the new ones? And, if those calculations prove inaccurate or non-viable in the longer term, what is the earliest opportunity at which such a shortfall could be redressed?
We do not for a moment dispute the benefit of the extended East London line. If it is introduced and incorporated properly, it will provide considerable benefit to people across south London and more broadly. However, the need to ensure that the present services are sustained until it has been demonstrated that they are no longer necessary is a higher priority.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Jim Dowd) on securing the debate and providing the House with this opportunity to discuss rail services in his area of south London. At the risk of making him feel a little old, may I tell him that, when he started campaigning as a Lewisham councillor in 1974, I was a schoolboy using Sydenham Hill station on a daily basis? I know that that station is not on the route that we are discussing, but he did mention it earlier. I am aware that this issue is of interest to a number of other hon. Members, given the correspondence that I have received from him and other Members in recent months, and also to other stakeholders and to the public.
I am also aware that any timetable change, however small, is likely to inconvenience some people and will therefore often be unpopular. In the case of train services on the Sydenham corridor, two sets of changes occurring at the same time are altering the nature of services on the route. I believe that, when these changes are looked at together—and once demand patterns have settled, later this year—the overall accessibility and attractiveness of train services in that area of south London will be vastly improved. However, I sympathise with users of the route if they are unhappy with the planned changes at this time.
I am conscious that, while many people are aware of those services that have been or will be changed or diverted as a result of the new timetable, little has been said about the additional services and journey opportunities that will emerge this spring. Transport for London will soon be starting a publicity campaign with regard to the East London line services and, as trial services begin to operate, I expect the benefits of those services to become more obvious to passengers. I have already asked officials to ensure that TfL is issuing appropriate publicity about the changes.
It hardly behoves us to criticise investment in public transport, which is most welcome and quite transformative—in my constituency, the tram transformed the place in respect of employment prospects—but if a new service is being launched, there is a great danger of inflicting reputational damage if other services are being reduced. Are the Government sensitive to that concern, as it would be such a shame if such an excellent investment were compromised?
I can never make myself clear from the back of the Chamber. The concern is that people might speak adversely about the new services if they are compromising other fast routes. I represent constituents who use Norwood Junction, which is just down the line from Sydenham, and they have already expressed their concerns to me in e-mails.
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to make a little progress, I might be able to answer him more fully. As I have said, I have already asked officials to carry out appropriate publicity for the changes. Given the concerns expressed, it would probably be best to deal with each of those changes in turn. I shall start by providing some background to them.
The Sydenham corridor is currently served by Southern Trains, but from May, East London line services operated by London Overground will be extended to operate on the route alongside Southern services. London Overground’s core service will operate four trains an hour between Crystal Palace and Dalston and West Croydon and Dalston. A separate service will operate from New Cross to Dalston. This compares with the former East London line, which operated only between New Cross Gate and Shoreditch. It is expected that eight of these trains will be extended to Highbury and Islington from 2011, once a new line is constructed at Dalston to connect the East London line with the North London line.
Further extensions to Clapham Junction are planned for 2012, which will mean that the route from Sydenham to New Cross Gate, which I know will be a prime concern to my hon. Friend, will see eight East London line trains an hour, plus Southern services. These East London line services will be operated by new class 378 trains in four-car formation similar to the new trains introduced on the North London line.
Importantly, the extended East London line will provide valuable interchanges with the rest of London’s transport network. The interchange with the Jubilee line at Canada Water will be especially valuable, given the links from there to Canary Wharf and the west end, but the interchange with the Hammersmith and City and District lines at Whitechapel will also be important, while we must also not forget the link with the docklands light railway at Shadwell. The later link to Highbury and Islington will provide a further direct interchange with the Victoria line.
We expect a considerable number of people to alter their journey patterns to interchange at Canada Water rather than at London Bridge. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the interchange from national rail to London underground at London Bridge is rather tortuous and probably takes a minimum of five minutes when measured platform to platform. Canada Water will compare favourably in that the interchange is a simple escalator journey to the underground. The latest information that I have from TfL is that the main works are complete and that non-passenger trial operations on the core route are about to commence. If these trial operations and associated staff training are successful, TfL hopes to commence a service on the core route north of New Cross Gate later this spring. We are as confident as we can be that the route will open on time later this spring. That is my answer to the question about when we should press on with the publicity.
My hon. Friend mentioned that 10 stations between New Cross Gate and West Croydon have already transferred to London Overground in readiness for the extension—additional investment has already commenced. He also mentioned that London Overground is going to upgrade many of those stations. He referred specifically to CCTV and public address, but there will also be a deep clean of the stations, along with new floors and platform surfaces, new entrance canopies, new signage, information systems and lighting improvements. It is also worth noting that “Access for All” works, funded by my Department, are already well advanced at Forest Hill station. I should add that the £900 million extension of the East London line has been made possible only by the considerable increase in grant given to Transport for London over recent years.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is supportive of all those investments in train services in his constituency. I firmly believe that these changes, along with other improvements, such as extension of Oyster pay-as-you-go, will transform the attractiveness of this area of south London—to reduce crowding, to support regeneration activities and to improve the overall service offered to the public.
However, the new services cannot be introduced without some changes to existing services and service patterns. Apart from some minor track works at South Croydon and Crystal Palace there is no building of new lines south of New Cross Gate, which means that the extended East London line timetable needs to mesh with Southern services. The issue is not as simple as might be imagined, especially given the complications of the crowded network in and about London Bridge and the interactions with other parts of the rail network including Southeastern services, Southern services to London Victoria, First Capital Connect services north and south of London, and the additional East London line services.
Does this not underline the need for further investment at the Windmill Bridge junction north of East Croydon station? It is great to get the service going, but not enough money was provided for the East London line. If capacity is not increased, there will unfortunately be some passenger resistance.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that, along with Network Rail, we are examining capacity issues throughout the United Kingdom network, because we consider those issues to be a priority.
I shall try to explain the background to each of the main changes, but I suggest that Members consider those changes as a whole and compare the final overall service from May this year with the service provided previously. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, since last December, later evening Southern services from the Sydenham corridor, amounting to a total of nine trains, have not progressed through London Bridge to Charing Cross. All services will now end at London Bridge, as they do throughout the rest of the day.
The reason for the change is that as part of its new timetable Southeastern—which, of course, has seen the introduction of high-speed services from Kent, and about 5 per cent. more capacity on metro services in Greater London—is stopping more trains at London Bridge during the off-peak period and in the evenings, and has also improved frequencies on the Bexleyheath corridor. Because of the provision of the additional trains, no spare capacity exists to allow Southern services to operate into Charing Cross. Southeastern and Southern have worked hard to identify a solution to the problem that would allow those trains to be accommodated through London Bridge. It has been unable to find a timetable solution, but it remains an aspiration of Southern to operate services through to Charing Cross. The Government have said that if in future Southern and Southeastern can find a way to extend services, which we agree is desirable, we will not stand in the way of the operators. I have asked officials to ensure that that option continues to be considered.
A number of timetable changes are planned for May 2010 on the commencement of the extended East London line. My hon. Friend has raised with me the apparent misalignment between opening dates for the East London line and changes to Southern services, and I understand that the Sydenham Society has raised the issue with him. I should make it clear that the new Southern timetable is planned to commence on Sunday 23 May, the day on which TfL plans to start operations south of New Cross Gate. There is thus no misalignment; TfL may be being a little cautious in its public statements.
As part of the new timetable, stations on the route will see a significant increase in the service provided overall. During the peak period, there will be six trains an hour from stations such as Sydenham to London Bridge, and a further eight trains an hour to the East London line. Sydenham currently has seven trains to London Bridge between 8 am and 9 am. In future, it will have a total of 14 trains to London, which will double the service and increase capacity by around 45 per cent.
I realise that it could be argued that Sydenham is seeing a reduction of one London Bridge train during the peak period, but given the parallel increase in services to the East London line, the overall benefits are large. In the off-peak period the service will broadly double from six to 12 trains per hour, which means a train every five minutes. Four of those trains will operate to London Bridge and eight to the East London line. I appreciate that that could be seen as a reduction of two trains an hour to London Bridge, but it has been made necessary by the operation of the East London line trains and the use of “turn back” facilities at West Croydon by East London line services.
I am particularly aware of the significant concern expressed about the evening peak changes on the corridor. Let me explain that in more detail. Southern currently operates six trains in the peak hour from London Bridge via the Sydenham “slow lines”, with two of them operating to destinations outside London. Because of the introduction of the East London line services and the congested nature of the infrastructure from London Bridge to New Cross Gate, it has not been possible to timetable the longer-distance services to fit with the regular-interval East London line services. As a result, from May the Dorking and Guildford services will now operate via the fast lines running non-stop between London Bridge and Norwood Junction.
The only way these services could continue to operate on the slow lines via Forest Hill would be by reducing the peak service operated by the East London line. While I recognise that this is of little comfort to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West, the change will reduce journey times to places such as Norwood Junction, Sutton and Dorking. The remaining London Bridge services will operate a regular-interval service from London Bridge at approximately 14 and 16 minutes apart, and should carry significantly fewer passengers as a result of the diversion of some passengers to destinations further afield. Most passengers to locations such as Sydenham and Forest Hill should need to alter their journey times by only two or three minutes. I will be happy to provide the House with details of the exact timetable, if required.
This change should be placed in the context of the eight East London line trains operating southbound from Canada Water, and, over time, we expect passengers who currently interchange from the Jubilee line at London Bridge to shift to interchange at Canada Water. It should also be remembered that passengers who previously changed on to Southern services at New Cross Gate will now be able to use both Southern and East London line services, further reducing demand pressures on evening peak services south of New Cross Gate. The same number of trains will be operating from London Bridge in peak times as today, and I can thus reassure Members that the changes are not being carried out for financial reasons; they are being introduced purely in order to timetable both Southern and East London line services on the same section of track.
Southern is committed to keep the situation under review after the introduction of the East London line next May.
House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).