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Child Slavery

Volume 524: debated on Wednesday 2 March 2011

[Mr Jim Hood in the Chair]

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Hood. It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship today. I rise to speak on this subject in the reassuring knowledge that on the general thrust of this debate, it is more than likely for the most part that party political differences will be set to one side. I say that not out of any sense of presumption but from my own experiences as a Member of this House and from the united opposition to the obscenity that is child slavery. We may differ in our responses to particular examples, but right hon. and hon. Members from all parts of the House have a shared abhorrence of the ongoing present-day shame and nightmare of child slavery.

Recently, Save the Children UK reaffirmed the figures of the International Labour Organisation, which revealed that across the globe, something like 218 million children between the ages of five and 17 are working as child labourers or are in child slavery. 126 million of those children are involved in hazardous work. About 8.4 million are trapped in the very worst forms of illegal, degrading and dangerous work. That equates to the horrifying statistic that in the least developed countries, 30% of children are engaged in child labour in some shape or form. In sub-Saharan Africa, there are some 49 million children involved in this activity.

It is further estimated that some 1.2 million children, both boys and girls, are trafficked every year and exploited as workers in agriculture, mining, factories, armed conflict and the sex industry. Those children are modern-day slaves, and the numbers are greater than when the old historical slave trade was at its height. Their sufferings are no less wrong, and the injustice inflicted upon them is no less real than those that were endured by slaves in a bygone era.

I want to consider three main issues: forced marriage, which is a form of slavery for children as young as 10 and 12; the trafficking of children for sexual exploitation; and forced labour and the economic exploitation of children. When we consider the issue of forced marriages, it is worth remarking that the previous Government tightened up the situation, which is to be welcomed. However, the then shadow Minister, Baroness Warsi, had this to say in relation to the new laws:

“The onus to go for a civil protection order is actually on the victim of the forced marriage or somebody close to them. I know from speaking to victims of forced marriages that, when they’re in those circumstances, the last thing on their mind or the last thing that they’re able to do, is go to court and seek an order.”

Hon. Members will no doubt be familiar with the fact that between April 2009 and March 2010, the British high commission’s assistance unit in Islamabad dealt with 121 cases of forced marriages, and there were 124 cases previous to that. In August 2008, 22 new cases were taken on by the unit—equivalent to one every working day of that month. In reference to those figures, Baroness Warsi said:

“Forced marriage ruins lives. It can lead to rape, abuse, and unwanted pregnancies. This is a serious problem, and these figures are just the tip of the iceberg. Forced marriages have no place in Britain today. The Government’s current approach is clearly failing vulnerable people who need our help. It is now time for the Government to consider making forced marriage a criminal offence.”

I am sure that many hon. Members will also be aware of the story of 14-year-old Jasvinder Sanghera who was shown a photograph of a random man and told that she was going to marry him. She ran away from home. When she rang to say that she was safe, she was given an ultimatum: either marry the man in the photograph or, because she had “shamed” the family, she would be dead in their eyes.

Later, she heard that one of her sisters was brought to such depths of pain and despair by her own forced marriage that she set fire to herself and died in hospital from 80% burns. I have no doubt that hon. Members will know of the letter that the then leader of the Opposition and now Prime Minister sent Jasvinder in which he said:

“As a country, I believe that we are half-asleep to these issues.”

I am sure that many hon. Members will share my concern about the recent report in The Times on 2 February that stated that of the 254 protection orders issued, only five families have been brought back to court for breaching the order and there have been no convictions.

In the same report, Nazir Afzal of the Crown Prosecution Service said:

“You are easily looking at 10,000 forced marriages or threats a year. I keep asking myself how many unmarked graves are there where people are not even reporting that their child is missing.”

I commend my hon. Friend on the timeliness and importance of his debate. He is touching on the sheer volume of the problem and the lack of prosecutions. Does he agree with me that while we all share the outrage and anger at the prevalence of this activity, what we need to see is more activity in trying to bring those responsible, particularly those engaged in trafficking, before the courts to be convicted?

I agree with my hon. Friend. He has hit the nail right on the head; we need convictions. People involved in this—we may not be able to do this within the law—should be locked up and the key thrown away. I am sure that all Members will agree that forced marriages and slavery are horrific crimes.

The Times also quoted a police officer who called for this crime to be made an aggravated offence, which would hand the courts power to pass enhanced sentences. I have already mentioned the comments made by Baroness Warsi in relation to the whole matter of forced marriage and the new laws introduced by the previous Labour Government. At that time, she also made a commitment that the Conservative party would make forced marriage illegal. Given the current situation, I would suggest that the time has come to change forced marriage from a civil offence to a criminal offence.

When he was in opposition, the Prime Minister promised that that was a step that he would take. Baroness Warsi also made that commitment on behalf of what is now the senior partner in the coalition Government. I encourage the coalition Government to go that extra mile now and stop this form of child slavery. The trafficking of children for sexual exploitation is shameful. It is estimated that about 100,000 to 500,000 people are trafficked into Europe on an annual basis.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I also remind him that I have to attend a Committee this afternoon, so if I slip away shortly it is not because I am not interested in this debate.

When my hon. Friend looks around the devolved jurisdictions that now exist in the United Kingdom, does he think that they are doing anything on top of what our national Government are doing to address the slave trade? The slave trade is not a 21st century phenomenon. It has existed for many centuries, and sometimes expertise and other help is needed to address it.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and he is right. During the debate that we had some time ago in the House on slavery, the issue of the devolved jurisdictions was raised. I think that slavery has been discussed in the regional Parliaments and I know that the Northern Ireland Assembly unanimously agreed that something should be done about people trafficking. However, although we say that something should be done about it, we need to see tangible evidence that something is being done. Words are fine—they are nice on paper—but we need to see evidence that something is being done for these children.

I add my commendations on the fact that my hon. Friend has brought this important subject to Westminster Hall. As for what can be done about trafficking, is it not the case that something could be done in Europe through the European directive on trafficking? Does he agree that there are concerns about why the United Kingdom has not gone further in relation to that particular issue and sits outside that directive?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. He is 100% right. Britain should play a stronger role on this issue, and perhaps later in my speech I will address that point. It is important that Britain take the lead on this issue, because slavery is such an horrific crime.

The US Department of State has estimated that up to 800,000 people are trafficked across borders worldwide. Most of them are women and children who are trafficked for sexual purposes. That figure does not include people trafficked within individual countries.

Concerns about the trafficking of children and young people for sexual purposes in the United Kingdom have been raised for some time. I commend the work of ECPAT, which is a very good organisation. Its full name is “End Child Prostitution Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes”. In its October 2010 report, “Child trafficking in the UK: a snapshot”, it made 10 recommendations. They range from establishing a Government rapporteur on trafficking to the issue of departmental responsibility for safeguarding the child victims of trafficking. They also include very practical recommendations such as the appointment of

“a designated lead manager on child trafficking…in every local authority”,

the provision of

“safe accommodation for all child victims of trafficking”,

and the creation of

“a system of guardianship for child victims of trafficking. Such a system would mean that every child victim of trafficking would have someone with parental responsibility”.

I am sure that the Minister is well aware of those recommendations and I ask him to give us an update on what the Government are doing with regard to them.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. He has already given statistics about the exploitation of children, including statistics about forced marriage and sexual exploitation. I am sure that he will agree that, although the statistics themselves are horrifying, it must be remembered that behind each of them there is a horrifying experience. It has been reported that children as young as five are being bought and sold on the streets within the United Kingdom for £16,000.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to see the current situation change radically and that that can happen only if the authorities pursue criminal convictions?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I agree 100% with him. We need to have convictions. There must be a willingness from the Government’s point of view to do something about this issue. If there is a will within the Government to do something about it, we will see results and then convictions will come afterwards. That is why it is important that we listen when the Minister responds to the debate. Hopefully, some glimmer of light and hope will emerge.

Investigations by children’s charities have identified sexual trafficking not only through the United Kingdom to other destinations but to the United Kingdom itself, with children and young people ending up as sex workers in brothels in various parts of the country. That seems to be a very strong statement when we are talking about the United Kingdom—this United Kingdom, the modern United Kingdom, which emphasises its work skills, its technology and everything that goes with that. We are out there to market ourselves to the wider world and we have a situation today where children as young as five or six are being sold on the streets of England for £16,000. That is the evidence from the research papers that I have been given—I did not make it up. It is abhorrent that that should happen in any country.

UNICEF is a reputable organisation. It has said that about 250 children were known to be trafficked into the United Kingdom within a five-year period, but it added that the real figure is likely to be far higher. These children are brought into the United Kingdom as slaves for the sex industry. In 2009, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre published a report, “Strategic Threat Assessment Child Trafficking in the UK 2010”. That report identified 325 children in the United Kingdom as known or suspected victims of child trafficking in the year from March 2007 to February 2008. Trafficked children in the United Kingdom have been identified as coming from a widening range of sources.

In 2009, the then Government set up a national referral mechanism for the identification of children coming into the United Kingdom through the trafficking process. Between 1 April 2009 and 30 June 2009, 40 children were referred through that system, including two children under the age of 10. That is horrific.

Some children who have been trafficked may have been physically abducted, but many children are trafficked with the knowledge of family members, who believe that their children are being offered the chance of a better life within the United Kingdom or elsewhere and do not know that they may be destined for sexual exploitation. The vast majority of those trafficked for sexual purposes are girls, but trafficking of boys is not unusual.

UNICEF has also estimated that that figure of 40 children —those who were identified through the national referral mechanism—is likely to be higher. UNICEF has recently estimated that at any one time there are about 5,000 child sex workers—not five, 50 or 500—in this so-called modern United Kingdom. Some 75% of them are females, and the remainder are young boys.

The internal situation in other parts of the globe is worse, and even more distressing. It has been estimated that 30% of sex workers in India are children— between 270,000 and 400,000 child prostitutes. In Brazil, up to 500,000 boys and girls are commercially sexually exploited, and on the borders between Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, 3,500 children are confined in brothels and clubs as slaves. We are talking about children who have not reached sexual maturity, and have no idea or understanding of what is happening to them. That is absolutely disgusting. Police in South Africa estimate that 28,000 children are coerced into the industry every year, and that in Cape Town alone some 25% of workers in the sex industry are very young children. In south and east Asia, one third of sex workers are children. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that those figures are shameful and beggar belief. Yet they are more than statistics: every figure represents the misery and loss that is routinely inflicted on a young life daily. Young lives are destroyed, and the very notion of civilisation or society debased.

On the sexual exploitation of children, does my hon. Friend agree that many of these children have been abducted from their families? No one can understand the anguish and pain that that causes a family. I say that as a parent who, many years ago, nearly lost one of his children, who was three or four at the time, in a hotel on vacation. My child was being taken away from us by a lady, and could have ended up in the industry. No one can understand the horror and pain that that can cause a family.

I absolutely agree, and I have mentioned the abhorrence, pain and anguish. I am sure that all hon. Members will have seen the recent news about a woman from New York who was abducted when she was very young and found out about it when she was an adult. There was a reunion, but it was miraculous that that happened, because so many times it does not, and people are left wondering how their children have turned out. It would be very difficult to live with the fact that a family member had been taken and used in such a way.

When it comes to the economic exploitation of children, including child labour, very often the United Kingdom is further downstream from the event, but the situation is no less real and no less dreadful for those caught up in the middle. Commodities—finished products that we buy—can have been produced, in part, by the efforts of forced child labour or slavery. In more than 50 African, Asian and South American countries, 1 million children are put into mines and quarries. That is a fact. About 40,000 children work in mining in the Congo. In west Africa it has been estimated that 200,000 children work in small-scale gold and mineral mines and quarries, and almost 18,000 children work in gold, silver and copper mines in the Philippines. Mining shifts worked by children can last up to 24 hours. Children work unprotected in mineral extraction, crushing ore using toxins such as mercury, at the risk of contamination. Children break and sort out rocks, water supplies are often contaminated, and there is the risk of underground explosions.

On top of those figures, we can add the number of children exploited as a result of bonded labour, in which a child is forced into slavery to pay off their family’s debt. It has been estimated that in India alone some 15 million children, most of them from low-caste families that have got into difficulties, could be working to pay off someone else’s debt. Many children across the globe, including in the United Kingdom, are beaten frequently, and passed from one owner to another as little more than a possession, or a dog. Save the Children has estimated that in Nepal there are approximately 200,000 bonded labourers, many of them children. In one province of Pakistan alone, it is estimated that there are almost 7 million bonded labourers, including children, and that around 250,000 children work in Pakistani brick kilns, and live there. Almost 70% of all child labour is in agriculture, with more than 130 million children involved in agricultural work each day.

Last year, the United States Department of Labour drew up a list of products produced by child or forced labour—slavery. The list goes from cocoa and cotton to rubber and coal; from gold and diamonds to emeralds and silver; from carpets and clothing to leather and silk; from garlic and grapes to bananas and rice; from salt and sugar to tobacco and tea; and from footballs and fireworks to fashion and furniture. All those products are made around the globe through the exploitation of children and the use of child slavery.

When it comes to both the sexual exploitation of children internationally and the kind of child labour that I have just mentioned, there are real issues for the United Kingdom Government. I am sure that all hon. Members will be able to identify numerous areas in which these issues cut across a number of Departments, but I draw specific attention to the Department for International Development. I emphasise that we are grateful for the assistance given by the UK Government to other countries, and that we are even more grateful to the many millions of people across the United Kingdom who donate money to special causes and needs, but surely pressure needs to be applied and greater emphasis placed on using our influence to end these practices. I think that all hon. Members will agree that the facts of life for millions of children across the globe, right now as we participate in this debate, are shocking and shameful.

As I said at the beginning of my contribution, I am certain that whatever minor differences hon. Members might have about individual incidents and the particular responses required, we all share a conviction that child slavery is wrong, unjust and unacceptable in this modern world. I have no doubt that that is the case. That fact draws out before each of us a question that might at first glance seem unusual, even unnecessary. Whatever our political background and personal experiences, why do we share an opposition to child slavery and a conviction that this evil should end? It makes no sense in evolutionary terms. Are we not told that evolution is about survival of the fittest and competition within species? So what if the poor, the weak and the helpless are exploited by the strong and the ruthless? But buried in the depths of every man and woman is a conviction that there is something better.

Every springtime—we are coming into spring now—nature stretches out and reaches up to bring forth new life and vigour, leaving behind the deadness of winter. Every year it is doomed to fall back in winter, but every spring it stirs and rises once more. Likewise, every human being stretches out and reaches up for something better and higher. It is inborn and embedded within us to be like that. What do we stretch out towards and reach up to lay hold of? In my opinion, it is the God who reaches down to us and who himself came down to us. It is the original created image in us—yes, it is tainted, marred and clouded, but it is still that part of man, made originally for God and in the likeness of God—that stretches out and reaches up for something better and higher. That is what tells every man that the wicked enslavement of children is wrong. Just as one came down to earth to open the soul’s prison, break its fetters, snap its chains and set it free, so we feel the urge and impulse to set at liberty children who are enslaved.

I do not intend to offend any right hon. or hon. Member by saying that I do not believe that there are many Wilberforces around today. However, I believe that in the breast of every hon. Member from every political party already beats something to which Wilberforce gave voice. Wilberforce said on one occasion:

“If to be feelingly alive to the sufferings of my fellow creatures is to be a fanatic, I am one of the most incurable fanatics ever permitted to be at large.”

It is my wish by this debate to make such fanatics of us all.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) on a moving speech—perhaps the most moving that I have ever heard in this Chamber. I think we all share an abhorrence of child slavery.

I, too, started by reading the Save the Children report “The Small Hands of Slavery”—it is an emotive title—and came across the disturbing statistics involving such large numbers. That was back in 2007. What progress are we making? As the hon. Gentleman said, the report states that 8.4 million children are trapped in the worst forms of illegal, degrading and dangerous work. It also identified the eight most prevalent forms of child slavery: child trafficking, commercial sexual exploitation, bonded child labour, forced work in mines, forced agricultural labour, child soldiers and combatants, forced child marriage and domestic slavery.

The hon. Gentleman provided many tragic examples from around the globe. It is, of course, a tragedy that there is such a variety. Our children are our most precious asset, and it brings tears to the eyes to think of children suffering in such ways. More recently, Save the Children published the report “Children on the Move”. We must remember that in high-profile conflict situations, such as in the middle east, children are particularly vulnerable to certain practices.

There is so much to be done. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we must consider the problem from the UK’s perspective, looking outwards as well as inwards and across Departments. Clearly, in order to tackle it, we need national, international and strong local action. We need to consider poverty reduction. This Government’s commitment to increasing the proportion of GDP spent on aid must be welcome, as it is well targeted to reduce poverty. We need education, legislation—legislation must be appropriate, but it is also important that it is put into practice—and resources for prevention and rehabilitation. Those principles can easily be applied to tackling problems in the UK. In my brief contribution, I will concentrate on trafficking, but I recognise fully the scale of the issue.

Research by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre discovered that at least 287 children in this country were identified as potential victims of trafficking between March 2009 and February 2010. More than one third were brought to Britain for the sex trade. Amazingly, 18% were made to cultivate cannabis. I must admit that I have learned a great deal from reading ECPAT UK’s representations about the use of child labour in cannabis cultivation in this country. It makes us realise that we can tackle such issues. It must be possible to track them down and take suitable action.

Has the hon. Lady seen the CEOP study on strategic threat assessment? It states:

“There are only a handful of UK police forces which have units designated and trained in running investigations into trafficking.”

Does she believe that more should be done initially to change that?

I certainly believe that more must be done on a range of issues. I will address the hon. Gentleman’s point shortly.

Sadly, many of the victims identified go missing again and are obviously re-trafficked. We must bear that in mind. We need, of course, to think about what is happening in the countries sending these people. We need international co-operation.

It is interesting that, under the Labour Government, we finally signed up to the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings, which came into force in April 2009. There had been questions over a long period from both sides of the House about when we were going to ratify the convention, but we did do so.

I hope that we will have some better news about the EU directive on human trafficking, which the European Parliament approved in 2010. So far, the Government have decided not to opt into it, which I find really difficult to understand. The UK and Denmark are the only EU states not to have opted in, even though we are told that everything we do complies. As I understand it, the directive improves existing EU legislation and provides better protection for trafficking victims, more rigorous protection measures and tougher penalties for traffickers. Signing up to the directive would make a clear statement about our Government’s support for trafficked women and Ministers’ willingness to provide protection and secure convictions.

An organisation called Care claims that this country is not really doing everything it could and that it is not doing everything in the directive. It says that forced begging is also trafficking. It says that we cannot prosecute crimes outside Britain. It says that Britain fails to provide universal access to safe accommodation and medical treatment for victims, fails to investigate cases after a victim withdraws a statement and does not always offer proper protection of victims in criminal proceedings. Those are all things that I believe we should be able to do.

As I understand it, the directive has a specific focus on child victims, so it is very relevant. It provides them with greater care and protection. It also directly calls for the UK to introduce a system of guardianship for trafficked children. I wonder whether that is the problem preventing us from signing up to the directive. Again, I want to be fair to both Governments. I have long argued for a system of guardianship for children who are unaccompanied asylum seekers, and I have tabled many amendments in Committees dealing with Bills on children, always to be defeated. We should not see this as a political issue, because we all need to work together.

On the EU trafficking directive, I agree entirely with the hon. Lady. However, given that we should all be working together and erring on the side of the caution in the protection of children and vulnerable people, does she understand the irony that even Eurosceptics—I include myself among them—have no problem with the Government opting in on this issue, although, of course, they opt in on a whole lot of other issues with which we do have problems? On this issue, however, there is a bit of agreement, so why not err on the side of caution, even if the Government are saying that they are doing these things already?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution. He makes a valid point. It is a strength of the EU that we can have co-operation over a large number of countries when crimes are being committed that are clearly not retained within the boundaries of an individual nation.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her excellent speech. Although the Government claim we are meeting all the requirements, what message does it send to those looking at countries to target if we do not sign up?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question, but I think he has answered himself. What he says is very true. The main thing is that we must be seen to be fighting this problem on all fronts, but there is a feeling that we are not.

I would be really interested to know whether guardianship is the issue that is holding us back from signing the directive. I strongly believe in the advantages of someone taking parental responsibility, and that has been alluded to. In a recent answer to a parliamentary question, the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), said that responsibility for child trafficking victims lies with local authorities, but that can co-exist with parental responsibility. When it comes to children in care, for example, we are aware that we have not done enough about the concept of corporate responsibility. We are talking here about children who have been through so much, and it is not a big ask to ensure that there will be not only some corporate body, but an individual to whom children can relate and from whom they can get support.

At present, a number of organisations are being closed. That is a concern in itself, but I hope that the Minister can reassure us, perhaps by setting out an alternative way of doing things. I am by no means arguing that we must carry on doing things in exactly the same way as we have in the past, and I would very much welcome a brand new approach, but I just have to raise concerns. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority faces closure. We no longer have the Metropolitan police’s human trafficking unit and Operation Golf, which were particularly focused on child trafficking. The UK Human Trafficking Centre has been absorbed into another organisation. We are not clear whether all the POPPY project’s funding will be protected. CEOP itself will be absorbed into another organisation. That need not all be negative news—perhaps the news about the POPPY project is—if the Minister can assure us that we will do things better. In addition to those cuts, the voluntary sector, like all of us, is facing cuts, but the problem we are talking about needs resources as a matter of priority. The hon. Member for Upper Bann has shown us that it should be a high priority.

The key issues for me include preventing these problems in the first place. That has to involve working on a wider international scale. Another key issue is identification, which this country is not very good at. We do not really know how many sex workers or child victims there are in this country; we come up with numbers, but they are probably just the tip of iceberg. How can we have the right priorities and the right policies unless we have the knowledge? I hope that identification and raising awareness will be given priority in the national strategy on trafficking, which is due to be announced.

Local strategies are important, and I would like to be reassured about how they will be worked through. Our local safeguarding children boards have a lot to do on identification, raising awareness and making sure that the right services are developed and supplied locally. We all need to be aware of the dreadful issues around us.

Whether a person is under 18 is still a big issue. Representations have long been made to me to the effect that the immigration age assessment dispute process is often used to divert young people into the immigration system, rather than to protect them. Obviously, it is very difficult to determine the age of a child. We must have effective intervention, and I am sure that we can do so much more on that. We must have safe and appropriate accommodation, so that once children are rescued, they stay rescued.

We need better evidence. We need all agencies to share information and to work together. We need better prosecution procedures. We need to support victims so that they give evidence. I am a little concerned about the period of reflection allowed by the UK Border Agency. The time for deciding whether a person is trafficked is to be reduced from 45 to 30 days. In Italy, it is six months, which I have always felt gives people—particularly young women—time to build up their strength and the courage to bear witness against the perpetrators. It is very difficult for someone who has just been pulled away from a horrific situation to give evidence at that time.

We have been around the globe in the debate and finally I want to stop off in Dorset. I commend the work of Poole Soroptimists, who have done a great deal to highlight trafficking, through supporting the purple teardrop campaign. I went to a very well attended meeting in Dorset organised by the Soroptimists, and people there were deeply shocked. In Dorset we do not necessarily think that we have trafficked children in our midst; but we do—and we do all over the country. That is why awareness-raising is so important for me.

It is also important that there should be specialist police units. As with most areas, cutbacks in the number of police in Dorset are proposed. It has been suggested to me, although I have not had it confirmed, that one thing that might disappear is specialist police work on trafficking. That would be very sad, particularly in the light of my final point: we are all looking forward to the Olympic games, but we must fear what might happen in our country at that time. The evidence is that a major international sporting event causes an increase in sex exploitation, forced child begging and child labour. We are blessed to have the water sports in Dorset, but we are concerned that there should be adequate policing. Because we are a safe part of the country we naturally do not have the highest level of police funding, but we shall need adequate policing in the light of the issues associated with the Olympic games.

Like the hon. Member for Upper Bann I can say only that the problem is so serious that we would be very remiss as politicians if we were not to commit to work together and do our very best for children in such incredibly awful situations as he described.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) for bringing the matter to Westminster Hall for debate. Many of us are aware of the issue, both within and outside our constituencies. I prepared a speech about a month ago, when my hon. Friend told me about the debate, but it is still relevant today, because things have not changed since then. They are still the same. The research about the amount of slavery in the world shocked me. I was sickened to my stomach as I read some of the stories. If hon. Members have not read the background information provided by the House of Commons Library they need to do so. When they do, they will be as shocked as I was about what is going on throughout the world.

An estimated 27 million people live in bondage today, but we know little about their plight. It is easy to watch a red nose day special and regard those precious faces in Africa and other parts of the world with a sense of pity, sympathy and perhaps compassion, but it is harder to face the fact that the problem is not simply an African one, but a global one. It is shameful to say that we are not immune in the UK. The hon. Members who have spoken so far have underlined that, and so will those who follow. I read a report in The Independent—I do not buy it, by the way—that stated that more than 5,000 children are being forced to work as sex slaves in the UK. I find that almost impossible to comprehend in a modern, understanding and compassionate society. The figure includes thousands trafficked to this country by criminal gangs. Indeed, a study of global slavery exposed Britain as a major transit point for the movement of child slaves around the world. The United Kingdom, of which we are all members, with UK passports, is an integral part of child slavery, the sex trade and the exploitation of children that goes on.

The report paints a shocking picture of an international web of gangmasters exploiting children as young as five, as well as vulnerable women. Many are threatened with violence, then sold into the sex trade and forced to become domestic servants. The issue is not all about physical abuse or sexual exploitation, as people are also exploited as domestic servants. Some would say that they are paid to work, and in many cases they are, but they do not always retain their full wages, which are kept as “savings”. They are told that if they go to the police they will be imprisoned, and they live in fear. The human trafficking trade now generates an estimated £5 billion a year worldwide, which makes it the second biggest international criminal industry after the drugs trade. I ask the coalition Government what priority they give to tackling that form of exploitation and child slavery.

Children’s charities in Britain say that there has been a dramatic rise in the number of referrals of trafficked children to sexual exploitation services. An investigation by The Independent on Sunday has found that the gangs, especially those from Romania and Lithuania, as well as Africa, increasingly target Britain, because markets in other European countries, such as Spain and Italy, are saturated. Things have moved slightly, and the impact is different.

We need tighter rules, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) clearly showed in relation to the EU directive. I look for some hope in that regard from the Minister. Will we sign up to the directive? I think that we should, and sooner rather than later.

Abolitionists fighting sex traffic in both south-east Asia and Latin America report that parents commonly sell their kids so that they can make an improvement to their home or purchase a vehicle or other consumer item. Those stories align with a report in The New York Times that parents in Albania sold their children to traffickers so that they could buy a colour TV. Can you take that in, Mr Hood—that anyone would do that with their child for the price of a colour TV? My goodness me; that could be about £150. Is that the price of a child today? Going by the background material available, and press stories, some 70,000 children are kidnapped in China every year, of whom only 6,000 are returned to their parents. Every year 64,000 children in China go missing and disappear into child exploitation across the world.

I received a breakdown of facts from the International Labour Organisation about child labour, which more often than not translates as children being forced to work for little or no recompense, to all intents and purposes as slaves. There are 246 million children who are child labourers and 73 million working children less than 10 years old. No country is immune or outside the problem, which involves 2.5 million working children in the developed economies, and another 2.5 million in transition economies. Every year, 22,000 children die in work-related accidents. The largest number of working children aged 14 and under—127 million—are in the Asia-Pacific region. Sub-Saharan Africa has the largest proportion of working children: nearly one third of children aged 14 and under—I think it is about 48 million children.

Most children work in the informal sector, without legal or regulatory protection, and 8.4 million children are trapped in slavery, trafficking, debt bondage, prostitution, pornography and other illicit activities. Of those, 1.2 million have been trafficked. One out of six children in the world today is involved in child labour, doing work that is damaging to his or her mental condition and physical and emotional development.

The ILO study has shown that the economic benefits of eliminating child labour will be nearly seven times greater than the costs. That does not include the moral benefits, and the most basic fact—that children can then have some semblance of childhood. Nearly three quarters of working children are engaged in what the world recognises as the worst forms of child labour, including trafficking, armed conflict, slavery, sexual exploitation and hazardous work—things we in this Chamber would shun. What co-operation is there with other countries to ensure that child trafficking or illegal and criminal activities are curtailed or stopped?

Amnesty International has stated that the strategy currently employed to combat that in the UK is ineffective and must be revamped. That must be our ultimate goal and aim. We must work with the zeal, enthusiasm and energy of Wilberforce—his name has already been mentioned—and pray that our results will come a lot sooner. I support the point made by the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) about sporting activities. The information supplied by the Library refers to the under-age sex trade booming at the Superbowl. In modern society and in modern world, whether it is the United Kingdom, the USA or elsewhere, people have a responsibility due to their affluence, their money and what they can buy. A child—and the innocence of a child—cannot be bought; I feel very strongly about that. It amazes me to read that some

“300,000 girls between 11 and 17 are lured into the US sex industry”

every year. That shocks and worries me. The story was also in the press, and it notes that some 50 children were rescued during the previous two Superbowls. Those who follow the event will know from watching it on TV that it is a great sporting occasion, but in the background there is the shadow of criminal and illegal activity, which causes me concern.

In conclusion, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann on highlighting the issue again, and pledge to work with him, with others present and with the Government to ensure that we, as elected representatives, speak out for those who have no voice, and cry out for the rights of the oppressed. These children are the most vulnerable and we have a responsibility to them. Let us carry out that responsibility and I ask the Government—our Government; my Government—to work with us.

Thank you, Mr Hood. I expect my speech to be brief. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) on securing this crucial debate, although I dearly wish that we did not need it. I also pay tribute to those who have spoken on what is a truly horrific subject.

I wish to highlight four areas of concern, and I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response. The first relates to the scale of the problem. I have done research and met organisations that wish to tackle the problem, and it is clear that, at best, the estimates are patchy, both in the UK and across the world. It seems that the true scale of the horror is all too often hidden away, lost in the system, or simply ignored. Far more needs to be done to make sure that we get a real understanding of just how horrific the situation is.

Secondly, if a victim is rescued in the UK and is brought in by the police, it worries me that, if they do not provide a statement or if they withdraw one, all too often an investigation does not follow. The main reason for that is that the victims live in fear of the gangs that control them. Unless we are able to convince them and give them confidence that we can provide them with sufficient protection, we will always struggle to get that evidence and break the grip of those gangs. I urge the Minister to look at whether we can proceed without getting all the evidence or statements from victims, or to make sure that those victims are given sufficient care.

The worst example is when a victim is released on bail and, as they leave the police station, the gangs are waiting outside to take them back. They are then lost to the system, the evidence trail is destroyed, and the cycle of despair continues. If the victim goes through the process and is placed in local authority care, the gangs will target those children and snatch them, often just days after they have been placed there. It is clear that the safeguards in such cases are woefully inadequate. Another worry is that, when rescued, the victims are often treated as criminals themselves, for either drug or immigration offences. They are treated as criminals, not victims.

Thirdly, on awareness, all too often, people acknowledge that this is an horrific issue while claiming that it does not happen in their area. But yes, it does—it happens under everybody’s noses. Gangs often target some of this country’s more affluent, new-build estates, where residents cannot name their neighbours, to be safe houses, cannabis-cultivating factories and brothels, because people do not notice when others come and go at different times. We all have a duty, as elected representatives and the Government, to highlight the issue. People need to be aware of it and understand that, if they see suspicious behaviour, they should report it to be investigated. I have been surprised a number of times to see that what seemed to be a quiet, well respected, crime-free area was actually hiding something pretty horrific behind closed curtains. We all have a duty to play a part in raising awareness of the issue.

Finally, I wish to highlight the issue of sex offences abroad by UK citizens, particularly the three-day loophole that allows known sex offenders to travel abroad for up to three days without notifying the authorities. In reality, that is a minor inconvenience if someone seeks to travel in Europe. It might stop them travelling to the other side of the world without supervision, but it causes no problem at all in relation to modern travel in Europe. Our record of prosecutions of British citizens for child sexual abuses overseas has been described by Christine Beddoe of ECPAT UK as “appalling”. Frankly, that is shameful and more should be done, because it relates to our citizens perpetrating horrific crimes abroad.

I shall conclude with a plea. There is clear cross-party support for action. Although the UK in many ways leads in this area, much more can be done to protect and rescue victims. It requires better co-ordination of services, because it is not just about the Government. It is a multi-service agency issue and we all have a part to play. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) has said, it is about fighting on all fronts, and we need real leadership to deliver. As has been said, behind every statistic is a real life horror story, and I urge the Minister urgently to deliver the leadership that we all want and that victims so desperately need.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) on securing a debate on this important issue, on which there is cross-party support, concern and willingness to address the problems that still exist and, as the hon. Gentleman said, to end the evil of child slavery once and for all.

The hon. Gentleman gave a powerful and moving account, with both a global and a focused, national perspective, which was helpful. It was also rich in reports, statistics and research, which is always helpful when dealing with an emotive subject such as this. He talked about the three key issues of forced marriages, sexual exploitation and economic exploitation, and addressed the problem of bonded labour, particularly in India. It was good to hear him quote at the end of his contribution the words of William Wilberforce. I am a Member of Parliament for William Wilberforce’s home city of Hull, and we in that city know that the problems of trafficking and child slavery are still with us today and that there is still much more that we need to do.

The brutal trade in trafficked children and child slavery is the modern-day manifestation of the slavery that William Wilberforce and others campaigned to abolish more than 200 years ago. We are concentrating today on child slavery, but it is so near to international women’s day that it is right to point out the overlapping trade in trafficked women around the world who are also kept in slavery.

We have heard interesting and thoughtful contributions from hon. Members during the debate. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who has a strong record in championing children’s rights and has been a strong advocate for standing up for the most vulnerable in our society. Her analysis—at the beginning she focused on the international perspective and she then moved on to the issue of trafficking—was very well thought through. What struck me about what she and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said was their comments on the issue of awareness. In many parts of the country, people think that child slavery or trafficking does not happen in their area—people have said that to me in Hull—but when we start to dig down, we realise that there are problems with trafficking all around the country. It was interesting to note the reading habits of the hon. Member for Strangford. He reads The Independent, although he said that he did not buy it.

Perhaps just once. The hon. Gentleman talked about the generation of £5 billion through the operation of slavery worldwide. That is a huge figure and we need to bear that in mind, because some very powerful interests will want to make sure that slavery continues. He also talked about Albania, China and the international issues there. The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) correctly reminded us about the victims. We need to ensure that we focus on the needs of those victims.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), who is the chairman of the all-party group on human trafficking. He has done a huge amount of work on the matter and has followed in the footsteps of the former Member for Totnes, Sir Anthony Steen. Thousands of people—children, women and some men—are brought into the UK each year to work in the sex trade. In 2008-09, the Select Committee on Home Affairs claimed that more than 5,000 people were being trafficked. In 2003, the total economic and social cost of human trafficking for sexual exploitation was put at around £1 billion. Many more people, including hundreds of children, are smuggled into the country each year to be exploited as domestic servants, farm hands or drug cultivators. We know that that is a real problem in the Vietnamese community. Vietnam is the most prominent of the 47 countries of origin for trafficked children and there seems to be a particular focus on young boys between the age of 13 to 17, who act as gardeners and cultivate cannabis plants in various settings.

In the remaining time, I shall discuss the EU directive on human trafficking. We have had lots of discussion this afternoon about why the Government have chosen not to sign up to the directive. The Government have said that they are already meeting the requirement set out in the directive. If that is right, which is in dispute, I ask the Minister to explain what would be lost by signing up to it. If we are doing everything anyway, what is the problem? Many hon. Members and organisations think that the Government are not complying with the directive. That was pointed out by many hon. Members in the debate on human trafficking held in Westminster Hall on 12 October and in the anti-slavery debate on the Floor of the House on 14 October.

As the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole mentioned, a report was published by CARE—a Christian charity—on 7 February entitled, “The EU Directive on Human Trafficking: Why the UK Government Should Opt-in.” The report shows areas where the Government are not complying with the EU directive. They include support for child victims; widening the trafficking definition to forced begging; giving jurisdiction over UK citizens engaging in trafficking overseas; assistance to victims of trafficking in health care and accommodation; the investigation and prosecution of trafficking crime; protection of victims in criminal proceedings; and establishing an independent national rapporteur on trafficking. Such a role would be similar in nature to the one that Lord Carlile played in anti-terror policies.

The Government oppose in particular the measure on guardianship for child victims of trafficking—an issue that is referred to in early-day motion 513 tabled by the hon. Member for Wellingborough and which has been raised by a number of charities. I would be grateful if the Minister shed some light on that subject. The Minister for Immigration told the House that the Government do not want to be bound by measures that “are against our interests”. It would be interesting if the Minister responding to this debate explained what that means. To whose interests is the Minister for Immigration referring?

The coalition agreement states that tackling human trafficking is a priority. I ask the Minister how much of a priority the matter is for the Government. I am concerned that many measures have been introduced that will weaken the protection of children from exploitation and the protection of vulnerable children, trafficked children and children who are held against their will. For example—the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole referred to this—there have been Government grant cuts to children’s services in councils. We already know that there is a lack of awareness about trafficking and child slavery, and I am concerned that those cuts will have even further impact. There have also been cuts to specialist policing in the area of trafficking. Operation Golf has been abandoned, vetting and barring procedures have been weakened—as set out just yesterday in the Protection of Freedoms Bill—the Gangmasters Licensing Authority has been closed, and the UK Human Trafficking Centre and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre have been dismantled. In addition, last year, ContactPoint was abandoned.

On the issues of child slavery and trafficking, co-operation is the wisest policy for the Government to follow. The cost of not pursuing such a policy will be terrible for exploited children and other vulnerable people. Many hon. Members have discussed the need to secure convictions, but we need a comprehensive approach to do so. On 27 January, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), the Minister for Equalities, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), justified not taking a decision on whether to opt into the EU Directive, and stated that

“we will make our decision in due course.”—[Official Report, 27 January 2011; Vol. 522, c. 440.]

That is particularly surprising bearing in mind the stance of the Liberal Democrat party on the issue and its long-standing view on the matter, which it has held for many years.

We all want to do everything we can to stop child slavery and trafficking. I very much look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Government plan to address the issues raised in this afternoon’s debate.

First, I should explain that I am responding to the debate on behalf of my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, who is in Rome today. He apologises for not being able to be here, but I should emphasise that he is on ministerial business. I am pleased to be responding to this interesting and important debate, in which I am happy to be engaging as Minister for Policing.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) on securing a debate on such an important subject: child slavery. Tackling the trafficking of children into the UK is a key element of the Government’s work to tackle child slavery in the UK. Children are brought to the UK to be exploited in domestic servitude or for labour, or to be used for sexual exploitation. The Government view human trafficking as an abhorrent crime. People are treated as mere commodities, exploited and traded for profit.

We have always stated very clearly our commitment to tackling the issue. The overall aim is to make the UK a hostile environment for trafficking and to identify and protect victims wherever possible. Children are included because they are, of course, the most vulnerable among those victims trafficked from various countries. I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman has done to raise the matter, and the contributions made by hon. Members from all parties. I agree that there is a large measure of consensus on the issue. I shall try to respond to all three of the key issues that the hon. Gentleman raised: forced marriage, the trafficking of children and sexual exploitation, and forced labour.

The UK leads the world in tackling forced marriage and places great emphasis on tackling early child marriage. It is an appalling and indefensible practice and is recognised in the UK as a form of violence against women and men, domestic child abuse and a serious abuse of human rights. There is no culture in which forced marriage should be acceptable. Victims can suffer physical, psychological, emotional, financial and sexual abuse, including being held unlawfully captive and being assaulted and repeatedly raped.

The Government have stepped up their efforts to tackle forced marriage in a range of ways: by strengthening the legislation and providing statutory guidance, practice guidelines and online training for professionals; by raising awareness and understanding of the issues, including among children and young people; and by providing effective one-stop support to individuals through the Forced Marriage Unit, which is a joint initiative between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office.

The Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 came into force on 25 November 2008, and offers civil remedies to protect victims or potential victims of forced marriages. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the question of whether forced marriage should be made a crime, which he raised as a potential solution. A national consultation was carried out in 2005 on whether to introduce a specific criminal offence for forced marriage. The majority of respondents felt that the disadvantages of new legislation outweighed the advantages. Many worried that criminalising forced marriage would force the issue underground. Victims of forced marriage can be unwilling to take action against their parents and many respondents felt that the legislation would not be used. Those at risk of forced marriage, or already in a forced marriage, can seek protection through the civil remedies in the form of a forced marriage protection order. Some 271 such orders have been taken out since 2008. The Government said that we would look at the legislation if it was not working, but those figures suggest that the civil remedies are working. Of course, we should keep such matters under review and we will consider any further representations that hon. Members make on the issue, but I hope that that is a reasonable answer to the hon. Gentleman’s particular concern on the issue of forced marriage.

On the issue of child trafficking, on 14 October, during the debate on anti-slavery day, the Minister for Immigration announced the Government’s intention to produce a new strategy on combating human trafficking. The strategy reiterates the Government’s intention to take a comprehensive approach to combating trafficking, both by combating traffickers and by looking after victims. There is a lot of extremely valuable work already taking place and there is a strong foundation to build on. The strategy will maintain the focus on supporting victims, while signalling a greater emphasis on tackling the root problem through more targeted activity in source countries, smarter multi-agency working at the border and more co-ordination of our law enforcement efforts in the UK. We are consulting with NGOs to ensure that their views on the strategy are heard and taken into account. We will certainly take into account the ECPAT report on child trafficking, to which the hon. Member for Upper Bann referred. The strategy will be published in spring and will build on the measures already in place.

Concerns were raised about the EU directive on human trafficking by my hon. Friends the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), and by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) on the Opposition Front Bench. I will not dwell on that because much has been said already, but I will restate the Government’s position. The draft directive contains no operational co-operation measures from which the UK would benefit. It will help to improve the way other EU states combat trafficking, but it will make very little difference to how the UK fights trafficking. Opting in would also require us to make mandatory provisions that are currently discretionary in UK law. Such a step would reduce, in the Government’s view, the scope for professional discretion and flexibility and might divert resources that are already scarce.

If we conclude later that the directive would help us in the fight against human trafficking, we could opt in. However, by not opting in now, but reviewing our position when the directive is adopted, we can choose to benefit from being part of a directive that is helpful, and avoid being bound by measures that we judge are against our interests. However, I would not want the fact that we believe that it would not be helpful to opt in to the EU directive—indeed, that it may be unhelpful in some respects—to colour the absolute determination that the Government have to act on the issue.

The Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings came into force in the UK on 1 April 2009. To aid in identification and referral, the national referral mechanism was established as part of the ratification of the convention on 1 April 2009. The NRM is a multi-agency framework that allows us systematically to identify trafficking victims and to refer them to support where necessary.

In addition to victim care and work at the border, the Government have always been clear that we remain firmly committed to instituting a strong enforcement response against those who seek to trade in human beings. It is for that reason that we introduced dedicated anti-trafficking legislation through the introduction of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004. I say “we”—I think that must refer to the previous Government, although I think there was broad agreement on those provisions. While the Government are committed to apprehending and charging those who commit this crime, we are also keen to ensure that victims, who are used by them for profit, are appropriately safeguarded. Our response must be international. Most victims of the crime are foreign nationals and there is an obvious need, therefore, to tackle the issue at source.

Hon. Members asked about the particular contribution of the Department for International Development. We have worked with DFID, the Foreign Office and the Serious Organised Crime Agency to support a number of initiatives that aim to tackle trafficking at the country of origin. DFID plays a key role in preventing trafficking at source as part of its work in combating poverty and social injustice through long-term development programmes. Additionally, DFID has supported programmes that are specifically focused on preventing child trafficking in such countries as Bangladesh and Uganda.

I would like to mention SOCA and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, as the status of both was raised by hon. Members. Both do valuable work in this area. SOCA has increased engagement through its global network of liaison officers in 40 countries. We intend to build on the work of SOCA by creating the national crime agency and maintaining the fight against serious and organised crime, of which that is an important component. Similarly, in relation to the important work of CEOP, to which I pay tribute, I reassure hon. Members that it is already a discrete part of SOCA. Should CEOP become a part of the successor body to SOCA, the national crime agency, it will remain a discrete part of the national crime agency. We are absolutely determined that CEOP should continue to be supported externally in the way that it currently is, and continue its valuable work. Nothing we will do will threaten the work of CEOP in any respect.

Has it not yet been decided whether CEOP will go into that new structure? Is that still to be debated?

We will announce a strategy in relation to serious organised crime in due course and are carefully considering those matters.

On the issue of funding, which was raised by the hon. Lady and by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole, it is certainly the case that many agencies, including the police, are being required to save money. That must not deter them from their core business of providing front-line services. These are very serious crimes. Agencies and forces must remain focused on those crimes while they seek savings in other areas.

Finally, I would like to respond to the issue of child labour, which was raised by the hon. Member for Upper Bann. We are committed to the elimination of child labour and are working towards long-lasting changes to tackle the underlying poverty that is the root cause of that problem. Children the world over must be given the opportunity to achieve their full potential, as expressed in the UN convention on the rights of the child and other international and regional instruments. All children have the right to an education and should not have to work to survive. Entering the labour force too early significantly limits young people’s opportunities over their lifetime and helps to trap families in poverty from one generation to the next. We are working through DFID. In addition, our commitment to the education millennium development goals of universal primary completion and gender parity at all levels of education, is evidenced by DFID’s work in tackling poor working conditions in developing countries.

I hope that it is clear from my response to this interesting and important debate that there is a concerted effort taking place in this country and abroad, through a number of Government Departments and agencies, to heighten awareness of this issue and to ensure that assistance is given, where appropriate, to our overseas partners. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Upper Bann for securing this very important debate. The Government are committed to tackling this horrendous practice and, whether it is referred to as slavery or trafficking, it is clear that that terrible crime must be combated and child victims safeguarded.