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Human Trafficking

Volume 540: debated on Wednesday 8 February 2012

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I must first thank the Speaker for granting a very important debate on the need for a national rapporteur on human trafficking.

I am delighted to see that the excellent Minister for Immigration will be replying to the debate. He is well known for his commitment to fighting the evil of human trafficking and, along with the Prime Minister, he has the desire to put the United Kingdom at the forefront of that fight. Sometimes it is like pushing at an open door, and I am really grateful that he is here. I would also like to thank James Newhall, my special adviser on human trafficking, and Tatiana Jordan, who is working in my office as an intern. She did much of the research and drafted this speech.

At the beginning of any human trafficking debate, thanks must be given to Anthony Steen, the former Member for Totnes. If he had not raised the issue of human trafficking in the previous Parliament, we would not be where we are today. Anthony has helpfully made a number of suggestions that have been incorporated into this speech.

As chairman of the all-party group against human trafficking, I would like to say that there is one small area where the Government could move the cause forward, improve the fight against trafficking and, at the same time, save taxpayers’ money. One of the problems surrounding human trafficking is the lack of reliable information and data analysis permitting us to assess the scope of the problem in our country. The solution in the UK to that challenge is to establish an independent national rapporteur.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the debate and on the excellent work he is doing as chairman of the all-party group against human trafficking. Does he agree that a positive example has been provided by the Dutch national rapporteur in this area, who since 2000 has made some 200 recommendations to the Dutch Government, many of which have led to improvements in Government policy in the field of human trafficking in that country?

I am very glad that I gave way to my hon. Friend who is, of course, a very worthy colleague of mine on the all-party group. She is absolutely right about the Dutch rapporteur, about whom I will say a bit more later in my speech.

An e-petition on the subject reads as follows:

“Human trafficking is serious, international, organised crime. The money generated from it (an estimated $32 billion per annum worldwide) is only marginally less than from arms dealing and drug smuggling. Tackling it is a priority for all political parties and the current Government. Much effort is expended by NGOs, Police, Social Services and other key Government agencies, to tackle human trafficking in the UK and protect its victims. However currently there is no independent monitoring system to ensure that work is effective and coordinated. We call on the Government to establish an independent watchdog, in line with the recommendations of the CoE Convention on trafficking in human beings, to which the UK is a party, to monitor the performance of key agencies ensuring that victims’ needs and experience are central. The watchdog should report to Parliament on a regular basis to ensure transparency and accountability.”

Like many other e-petitions, once it reaches 100,000 signatures, the Backbench Business Committee can consider it for a debate. I am on the Backbench Business Committee, too.

I am pleased to be able to say to the Minister that that e-petition is well on the way to succeeding. This morning, I checked how many signatures there were and I am pleased to say that there were 116. That highlights the problem of the issue. Human trafficking is evil, wicked and underground. It is modern-day slavery, but so few people know about it. A national rapporteur would unite all our anti-trafficking efforts under one roof and guide us through the main challenges, making recommendations on measures that might be required on a policy level to protect victims’ rights and prosecute the traffickers.

As stated by our gutsy Home Secretary in “Human Trafficking: the Government’s Strategy”:

“The UK has a good record in tackling human trafficking...We need to do more to stop this horrific crime…By applying to opt in to the EU Directive on human trafficking, we have demonstrated our commitment to working with other countries in Europe to drive up standards across the continent in tackling trafficking.”

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining the debate. May I put on the record my appreciation and that of the people of Northern Ireland for his attendance at a conference last Friday night in Northern Ireland that brought a lot of groups together? We would like to put on the record our appreciation for his attendance and for his speaking at that debate. I am sure that he will agree that we need to do something drastically, whether through a rapporteur or whatever, because, as he has highlighted, there are 116 signatures and we have a long way to go to get 100,000.

I say this deliberately: my hon. Friend is being very modest. He set up a conference on human trafficking in Portadown last Friday. Some 150 people were there. There were four main charities: Women’s Aid, A21, Stop the Traffick and the other important one I have just forgotten—[Interruption.] Against Child Trafficking. Senior police officers from Northern Ireland did a presentation and there was a short speech from me. We heard from Kate, who is a 21-year-old who rowed across the Atlantic with four other young women to raise awareness of human trafficking. Let us imagine what it must have been like rowing across the Atlantic, throwing up in the boat and all manner of other things. That shows the guts of those young people. I was delighted when my hon. Friend presented an award to her. He is a shining example of what Members can do in their constituencies. I have said to him—I genuinely mean this—that it was the best presentation I have seen. As usual, he is being unduly modest.

To return to the issue of having a rapporteur, the EU directive calls for the establishment of a national rapporteur or, as the Minister is probably going to remind me, an equivalent. I consider most of what the EU does to be wasteful, anti-democratic and not to be touched with a bargepole. However, in this case, the EU did not make the directive compulsory; it was something that member states could opt into. It was absolutely right for the Government to take their time to consider whether we should opt in. The all-party group urged the Government to opt into the directive, and then they decided to do so. That is exactly how we should consider EU directives. If it is in the interests of the country to opt in, we should do so. The crucial point is that, having opted into it, we have to implement it in full. If we accept that we must opt into the directive, then we must do so in full.

What we are doing? Maybe we should be looking at what gaps there are—that is probably better. There is currently no independent oversight of the human trafficking situation. A national rapporteur, or equivalent mechanism, must be independent from Government. If they are not independent, their work will not be considered authentic, as it will always be felt that the Government have somehow rigged the figures, and that whatever view is expressed will represent a spin on Government policy. No Government organisation will criticise its own Government.

What do we have at the moment? We have the Government’s interdepartmental ministerial group—something Jim Hacker might have thought up. It is considered to be the national rapporteur’s equivalent mechanism in the UK. This august body has only met twice in the past 18 months. However, the good news is that it has 20 Ministers on it—fantastic. All these Ministers getting together to discuss human trafficking—first class. There is only one slight problem. At the two meetings that have occurred, two thirds of the Ministers have given their apologies. I really do not think that we can claim that that is working in any way whatever.

The Minister for Immigration kindly wrote to me on 1 February, recognising the failure of the current system. He said:

“I will be reviewing the role and remit of the IDMG to ensure that it can effectively carry out the Rapporteur function in line with the requirements of the Directive.”

Well, I can solve the Minister’s problem. I can make his work load less. I can make his day happier. Instead of trying to bring together lots of disinterested Ministers and meeting once every nine months to be the equivalent of the national rapporteur, why not just have a national rapporteur?

The Netherlands, where a national rapporteur was established 10 years ago, has got a grip on the scale, variety and changing face of human trafficking, and can target their resources accordingly. The Dutch rapporteur is a former judge with a small professional team. She is independent from Government and her mandate and authority is recognised by every parliamentarian. Her annual report to Parliament includes information from various sources, such as the police, immigration service, border agency, social services, NGOs, churches and civil society.

Here is the latest Dutch rapporteur’s report, full of statistics, analysis and recommendations. It is debated in the Dutch Parliament. It is recognised by the Government, NGOs and media as the authentic guide to trafficking in the Netherlands. When I first met the Dutch rapporteur a few years ago, her office consisted of her and one researcher-secretary operating from a small office and costing next to nothing to run. Today, the Dutch Government have recognised the huge advantage of having a national rapporteur and have extended her remit twice. She now investigates not only human trafficking, but child pornography and sexual violence against children. The Dutch rapporteur fulfils the EU requirement and is cheap. More importantly, she has caused a step change in the Dutch fight against human trafficking.

How would a rapporteur help here? We have no idea of the scale of modern-day slavery in the UK. However, every so often, new information raises its head above the parapet. For example, it was in the news recently that at least 32 men, who were trafficked to six European countries, including Sweden, Norway and Belgium, to work on building sites, were duped, deceived, had their passports taken away and were not paid. Another example is from Bedfordshire. A group of Englishmen were abused by other Englishmen. The vulnerable victims, some of whom were starving, had been lured from soup kitchens, benefit offices and hostels with the promise of paid jobs and shelter.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he recognise the urgency of the situation, given that we have the Olympics this year and the Commonwealth games in Glasgow in two years’ time? During such international sporting events, there is an increase in organised crime and an increased risk of human trafficking. Therefore, we need a coherent strategy from the Government, working alongside the Scottish Government, to deal with the Olympics and the Commonwealth games in 2014.

The hon. Gentleman is spot on when he says that this is organised crime. Where they see a big venue, they see money, and of course it is a danger. The Government are working to prevent that, but I still have my concerns about what might happen.

The latest example of human trafficking, which we discussed with my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), was revealed last week. For the first time in Northern Ireland, there was a conviction for human trafficking. A legitimate restaurant owner from Hungary brought young girls from eastern Europe into Northern Ireland, with the promise of paid work in his restaurant. They arrived all very happy. They then had their passports and documents taken away, and were forced into a brothel. When I say a brothel, it is a house in a road where they were locked in a room for 24 hours a day. Some 70 women were trafficked. I use the word “women”, but I bet that some of them were actually technically children.

I am conscious that I am eating into the Minister’s time. I wanted to say a little about the UK Human Trafficking Centre, which has not worked as well as it should have done.

Order. There is slightly more time because of the earlier Division. If the hon. Gentleman would like to continue for a minute, I will not stop him.

Thank you, Mr Weir. Do not encourage me.

The UKHTC costs £1.6 million a year and employs 30 people. Support for victim care, which the Government have increased, costs nearly £2 million a year and services nearly 1,500 people. There seems to be a little discrepancy there. We could take a fraction of that £1.6 million— perhaps, at most, £250,000—and establish a national rapporteur. It would do all the things we want at the fraction of the cost. The Minister could then go back to the Chancellor and say, “By the way, Chancellor, here is £500,000 back that I have found.” I know his career prospects are good, but that would be an added incentive for the Prime Minister.

Three components are required for a national rapporteur to make an effective contribution to combating human trafficking, as opposed to simply writing reports that gather dust: independence from Government; unlimited and direct access to all relevant information, not just Government information; and annual reports that should be made public, with their recommendations debated in Parliament. It is important to keep in mind that, while a report by the national rapporteur on the status of human trafficking is designed to cover the scope of the problem and the changing trends as well as the appropriate responses, it should not lose sight of the ultimate goal: to end this vicious modern-day slavery.

The UK Government’s human trafficking strategy clearly states its main four objectives and how to achieve them. If established in the UK, a national rapporteur could gather and synchronise the information to assess the Government’s progress on its timely and efficient implementation, make recommendations on where more attention and action were needed, and ensure the adequacy and appropriateness of services provided to victims of trafficking.

Another point that was brought to my attention is that the Dutch Government discovered that having a national rapporteur actually helped them. When outside bodies said that the Dutch Government were not doing enough, they could point to the rapporteur’s report and say, “Yes, we are doing the job.”

In conclusion, not only am I being a good European today, and not only am I making the Minister’s life easier—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) says that there is a first time for everything. Not only am I saving the taxpayer money, but I am arguing for a big step towards ending the evil of human trafficking.

I cannot call the hon. Gentleman unless he has the permission of the initiator of the debate and the Minister. Does he have the permission of both?

As vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking, I find that quite appalling.

I am happy to assure the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) that I will be generous in allowing interventions, even though I am restricted by time, because I appreciate his contribution and his long-standing interest in this subject.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) on making a uniquely Europhile speech, on securing this debate and on his work for the all-party group. I am grateful for his kind remarks, although I am deeply worried when he says that lobbying me is like pushing at an open door. I make it clear to all non-governmental organisations that that should not be taken as precedent.

There is, rightly, a lot of interest in this issue. Everything that my hon. Friend said about its seriousness and the importance of having an effective anti-trafficking strategy is, of course, true. The one point where I would slightly disagree with him, apart from on the central argument—I will come on to why I disagree with him about that—is on the lack of public awareness. It has struck me, over the past few years, not least through the actions of the all-party group, NGOs and successive Ministers in both Governments, that there is consciousness throughout the country of the evil of trafficking and the fact that it is present not just in our inner cities and the sex industry, but in many small communities, including rural communities, and all parts of the United Kingdom, as we have heard. Indeed, it is everywhere. That consciousness has grown in recent years, which is good, because we will be much more effective in fighting trafficking if, out there, the general public knows about it.

In that context, it is fair for me to outline some progress that we have made since we published the human trafficking strategy in July last year, which focuses, as my hon. Friend said, on four key themes: improving victim identification and care; enhancing our ability to act early; smarter action at the border; and more co-ordination of our law enforcement efforts in the UK.

Officials have been working across the Government to build a more collective and collaborative response to fighting human trafficking, bringing in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development, the Department for Education and the Department of Health. Equally importantly—I take the point that there must be collaboration between the Government and extra-governmental bodies—this response is specifically supported by stakeholder groups on specific themes, attended by a range of NGOs. The current groups are focusing on five key areas within the strategy: raising public awareness; working with the private sector; working with child victims; tackling demand; and international engagement. Those groups have already instigated action to support the aims of the strategy. For example, they are considering how we can expand the awareness-raising initiative with airlines—something that I helped to launch with Virgin Airlines as part of the activities on the most recent national anti-slavery day.

We have already provided additional information to posts in other countries to raise awareness of trafficking and to support collaborative working with NGOs in those countries. Part of that work includes gathering information from posts, so that we have a better understanding of their challenges and issues to help inform how we might best support anti-trafficking efforts around the world. We recently agreed an awareness-raising campaign with a major supermarket in Lincolnshire to provide information to potential vulnerable workers in the agricultural sector.

Officials continue to review and refine the national referral mechanism to ensure that victims can be identified appropriately and to ensure that the picture on the extent of human trafficking within this country is clearer.

My hon. Friend was disapprobatory about the UK Human Trafficking Centre. Clearly, it can get better and is doing so, but improvements can always be made. That is what we are trying to do in respect of its intelligence function and organised crime group mapping, which will help inform the Government’s view of the priority areas to combat human trafficking.

I am reminded of the adage that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. On 18 January, the Minister said in his response to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s special representative and co-ordinator for combating traffic in human beings:

“Progress is monitored by a strategic board of cross-Departmental officials which meets on a six-weekly basis. This board reports to the biannual Inter-Departmental Ministerial Group…on human trafficking.”

That seems to be a larger number of people than is required to do a job, which, as the chair of the all-party group, the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), said, is done by a co-ordinator—a proper rapporteur with a single purpose, independent of the Government.

Let me move directly on to the central point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough about whether we need a rapporteur added to our armoury. Obviously, this matter arises from the directive that we have now opted into. I am grateful to him for his support, not just for our opting in, but for the way that we did it—at the end of the process when had we ensured that it was appropriate and helpful to this country to do so.

We have given much thought to how we implement the directive. We are about to make changes to primary legislation, with amendments to the Protection of Freedoms Bill, to ensure that we are compliant with those parts of the directive to which our laws are not compliant at the moment, and we are making an initial assessment of where we may need to introduce secondary legislation. We are determined to ensure that everything is in place by April 2013, which is when we need to be completely compliant.

Article 19 allows the setting up of a national rapporteur or equivalent mechanism. I am unpersuaded by my hon. Friend’s example. He was mildly humorous about the inter-departmental ministerial group. I think that I am entitled, in return, to note that of the 27 nations in which he could have found examples of people being inspired to greater efforts on anti-trafficking by having a rapporteur, he adduced precisely one. I am disappointed on behalf of Finland, which is the only other country in the European Union that has a national rapporteur. I note that my hon. Friend did not come up with any great advantages from the Finnish system.

On that important point, the Minister is right; of course there are two countries that do it, but the Prime Minister wants—I hope that the Minister would want to support the Prime Minister—to make the UK the leading country in the fight against human trafficking. With a rapporteur, we could take that lead.

I share the ambition to make the UK a leading beacon, showing people how we can effectively fight trafficking. So let me get to the point of why I think that a rapporteur would be a fifth wheel on the coach.

The interdepartmental ministerial group, which meets every six months, is effective with support from the UK Human Trafficking Centre, which is the central repository of data—my hon. Friend made that important point—and it can effectively perform the national rapporteur function, because apart from the ministerial meetings, officials from across Whitehall meet once every two months to support the ministerial group, to inform it and to provide an update.

I agree that the current structure is not perfect, and I intend to make some improvements, so that it can become more effective. First, I will consider my hon. Friend’s point about the frequency of the group’s meetings, so that it can maintain effective oversight across the Government of the work on combating human trafficking. Secondly, I will review the group’s membership to ensure that we have the right people in the room discussing the issues across the Government. I recently wrote to group members emphasising the importance of their regular attendance: I take the point that my hon. Friend made in that respect, as well. Thirdly, I will revise the terms of reference for the group to reflect the required functions of the rapporteur role, so that it can effectively assess trends and measure the actions taken to address them.

As part of the existing arrangements, the group receives information on human trafficking trends from the UK Human Trafficking Centre, which informs our approach. If particular issues are raised, the group will be able to commission further data from the HTC. To that end, my officials are working with the centre to establish consistent data requirements to support the group in carrying out that role. In line with the requirements set out in article 19, the group will publish an annual report on the assessment of trends in human trafficking, as well as on anti-trafficking activities, and will work with the NGOs to achieve that.

In recent debates, as well as in this one, questions have been asked about the independence of the ministerial group and about the requirements of the rapporteur role. To be clear, the directive does not stipulate that the national rapporteur or equivalent mechanism must be independent of the Government. Indeed, we already have in the UK a vast array of extremely effective organisations independent of the Government that produce assessments of human trafficking inside the country and internationally. We of course consider proposals and recommendations in each report, and we will strengthen our response accordingly. In carrying out the rapporteur function, the group’s report will not only consider trends but will take account of assessments and recommendations from other reports and of the Government’s progress in delivering their strategy.

To make those pledges concrete, I intend that the group will produce an initial report following the first anniversary of the publication of the strategy, after the Olympic games, to ensure that the progress made on the strategy and any learning or experiences gained from the games can be captured and inform our assessment of such work.

As the problems that might come about because of the Olympics have been brought up, let me say that of course we have a threat assessment of the Olympics, including the possibilities of trafficking. I am pleased to say that, at the moment, there is no evidence of extra trafficking activity as a result of the Olympic games, which would have been intuitively plausible because there has been evidence of trafficking at previous World cups, but they attract a different kind of audience from the Olympics. We are now over the construction phase—the venues are built—which is another time that people were worried about, and I think that the sort of people who attend the Olympics will provide less of an incentive. More to the point, so far the police detect no evidence of any large-scale increase in trafficking activity related to the games.

I thank my hon. Friend for his continuing concern with and commitment to the fight against human trafficking and others present in the Chamber today. The appropriate structures are in place and will get better, and they provide the right oversight in this area. It almost goes without saying, but I can assure hon. Members that the Government continue to recognise the importance of fighting such a terrible crime and ending the plight of far too many vulnerable adults and children. I will bend all my efforts to ensure that we are as effective as possible in continuing that fight.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.