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Independent Advocates for Trafficked Children

Volume 612: debated on Tuesday 28 June 2016

[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered independent advocates for trafficked children.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter.

I was proud to contribute to the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Although I wanted it to include specialist guardians for trafficked children, I was glad to support section 48, which provides for independent advocates to be available to promote the best interests of those children, advocating for them and accompanying them through the many confusing official processes that they encounter. Section 48 benefited from a series of improvements as it passed through Parliament, and the Minister and the Government are to be commended for listening to the concerns and suggestions of Members and responding with positive changes to strengthen the role of advocates.

Let us just stop to think for a moment about the lives of children who have been brought to this country by exploitative criminal traffickers. They are lonely in a bewildering foreign country where they do not speak the language. The person who brought them here may have sexually exploited them or tried to get them involved in criminal activity to recoup the cost of their horrible and terrifying journey. They may be told that if they do not collaborate their families will suffer. They feel scared and abandoned. Some 982 children were identified as having probably been trafficked last year, and we know that there are more who will never come to the attention of the authorities. That is why Kevin Hyland, Britain’s independent anti-slavery commissioner, has said that

“it is essential to ensure child advocates are put in place as soon as possible.”

However, a year later, section 48 remains dormant on the statute book. More than a year since the Act was passed, and three months after the Minister promised we would be presented with new proposals, vulnerable trafficked children are still without the specialist support that the Act intended to provide. The delay in establishing the scheme is particularly disappointing in the light of the positive evaluation of the trial schemes produced for the Government by the University of Bedfordshire and published in December, which concluded that

“evidence from the trial suggests that advocates added value to existing provision, to the satisfaction of the children and most stakeholders. The ICTA service”—

—the Independent Child Trafficking Advocates service—

“appears to be important in ensuring clarity, coherence and continuity for the child, working across other services responsible for the child, over time and across contexts…This evaluation’s main conclusion is that the specialist ICTA service has been successful as measured in relation to several beneficial outcomes for trafficked children.”

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on her fantastic work with the all-party group on human trafficking. During my time on the group, there was an issue with consistency in how police services throughout the United Kingdom deal with trafficked children. Has that improved with time or are there still the same difficulties?

I do not think we have evidence about consistency, to be honest, but a comprehensive advocacy service would give us that evidence and could also improve consistency. The advocates were able to help children to orient themselves and navigate complex services; to keep trafficked children safely visible to all authorities—we know that is a problem in some areas—to build relationships of trust with the children and with other professionals; to speak up for children where necessary; to maintain momentum in the progress of their cases, including planning for their future; and to improve the quality of decision making in those cases. The children in the trials who had an advocate felt more secure and supported than those who did not. In the words of the report,

“when an advocate was involved in their life, the children had a sense of being cared for in a ‘tight knit’ manner. For the comparator group children, a steady impression emerged of more ‘loose weave’ relationships with intermittent contact with social workers”.

As one child put it:

“I can call my social worker and then she tells me OK but I’m busy or something. But if I call [the advocate] then she can make things happen.”

I, too, congratulate the right hon. Lady on her very good work with the all-party parliamentary group. I declare an interest as a trustee of the Human Trafficking Foundation. The right hon. Lady makes a good case. Does she agree that a close relationship with the advocate often allows the child to feel more comfortable and confident and therefore less likely to take instructions from the trafficker and more likely to trust the local authority?

Every human being needs that person they trust and who they know will stand up for them at every point. For so many of these children, initially that person is the one who brought them to this country, often to exploit them. The great thing about creating an independent advocates scheme is that it gives the children that person.

In February 2015, when the Modern Slavery Bill was on Report in the other place, the Home Office Minister Lord Bates said:

“The success of the trial will be measured by assessing the impact of advocates on the quality of decision-making in relation to the child trafficking victims’ needs by key professionals—for example, social workers, immigration officials and police officers—the child trafficking victims’ well-being; their understanding, experience and satisfaction of the immigration, social care and criminal justice system; and their perceptions of practitioners.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 February 2015; Vol. 759, c. 1668-69.]

If that is the test, there is no doubt that the pilot was a success.

The evaluation report also recognises significant value in having the advocate role operate independently of local authorities and other agencies that provide services to the children, which enabled advocates to play a co-ordinating role, thereby keeping momentum in a child’s case, and to encourage coherence in how they were treated. It also gave the advocate a 360-degree view of the child, their life and their circumstances, which helped them to provide more informed and comprehensive support. One professional stakeholder described the benefit of the holistic nature of the advocate’s role thus:

“The independent CTA [child trafficking advocate] that I have met had a cross cutting knowledge of the NRM, criminal and immigration proceedings that other professionals working with the child (social services and support workers) openly told me they did not. She made sure that his interests in all…areas were proactively pursued, by remaining in contact with all other relevant professionals working with the child. I thought she was excellent in tying these areas together.”

That connects with the point that the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) made about those children needing their trusted person. I worry that the Government’s unpublished anxieties about the shortcomings of the pilot risk our losing some of those special qualities in whatever is the next iteration of the scheme.

The trials showed that advocates can raise awareness of sexual exploitation, help to address poor legal services provided to a child, and challenge when children are placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, where other residents might exploit them, rather than with experienced foster families. They help children to access education and support with many everyday needs such as getting transport passes, opening bank accounts and going to after-school clubs. Sadly, those benefits were overlooked by the Government’s response to the trials, which stated that

“the impact of the independent child trafficking advocates…appears to be equivocal”—

a statement so contradictory to the conclusion of the evaluation report that it is honestly difficult to see on what basis it was made.

One sticking point was the failure of advocates to prevent children from going missing from care. Sadly, the Government seem to have a mistaken interpretation of the evaluation’s findings on that account. The fact is that seven of the 15 children who went missing from the advocacy group did so before an advocate was appointed; an accurate reflection of the figures would therefore be to say that, of the 27 children who were permanently missing at the end of the trial, only eight had an advocate in place. The failure of the Government so far to acknowledge that is concerning. I know that preventing children from going missing and protecting them from further exploitation must be a priority, and I welcome the Government’s concern.

On that important point, does the right hon. Lady agree that children go missing for myriad reasons, including the quality of accommodation, the relationship with the trafficker and the level of English? Although the going missing factor is extremely important, it is probably an unrealistic measure of the trial’s success.

Order. We have a Division. The right hon. Lady will have to answer that intervention when we get back. The sitting is suspended for 15 minutes. If there are two votes, please come back as quickly as possible.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

We are waiting for one or two colleagues to return, but I think that we are able to get under way, so I call Fiona Mactaggart to answer the intervention that was made 20 minutes ago.

Thank you very much, Mr Streeter. The hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald talked about the complex factors that lead to children going missing. As Professor Ravi Kohli, who led the evaluation team, told a joint meeting of the all-party groups on human trafficking and modern slavery and on runaway and missing children and adults, the circumstances in which a trafficked child goes missing from care are complex. Many factors may be involved and may need to be addressed to provide a solution. An advocate can help to mitigate those factors by raising awareness of the risks among other professionals, pressing for the provision of safer accommodation and building strong relationships with the child, but other action is also needed. As the evaluation report said, the circumstances in which children go missing require further investigation to ensure that we put in place the most appropriate measures to prevent that from happening.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important debate. On that issue, the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults has done work on children who go missing from care and is concerned that a proper risk assessment should be made of what happens to such children and the risks that they may be opened to when they go missing. That relies on the child disclosing what has happened to them. Children will not disclose information unless they trust the person they are giving that information to. The trusted person is key. Does she think that one way forward on this issue might be to look at how we can get more trusted people for children who go missing—they go missing for all sorts of reasons—and possibly developing some kind of voluntary scheme?

My hon. Friend, who chairs the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults, really understands this issue. I believe that children who have lost contact with families can benefit from such an advocacy scheme too. In a way, the Home Office has been more determined to provide support for isolated children than has the Department for Education, which should play a leading role in this area. Local authorities face diminishing resources and increased demand, and cannot adequately support British children who go missing or the unaccompanied Syrian refugee children who will come here. We know from international and indeed Scottish evidence that such children benefit from independent guardianship and that they are at risk of exploitation and trafficking.

My hon. Friend’s proposal that we find ways of giving all children a special person may help to make more children resilient to the risks that they face of going missing, being exploited and so on. Although it is beyond the scope of the debate, I hope that in the future we could extend an independent child advocate scheme beyond trafficked children to lone migrant children and children who have gone missing from their families and so on, because every child needs their person who will help to make them safer. There is no magic bullet, but having a person can make a lot of difference.

On my hon. Friend’s question about risk assessment, we know that the risk of going missing is much higher among some groups of trafficked children than others. For example, Vietnamese children trafficked to this country to work as gardeners in cannabis farms are at an almost automatic risk of disappearing. So a robust risk assessment is needed as soon as a child is identified as a victim of trafficking and we need an accelerated programme to connect high risk children to an advocate.

The evaluation illustrates cases where advocates were the only people who enabled a child who had gone missing to be brought back into contact with the authorities responsible for them. There were significant delays in children being referred to the advocacy service by local authorities—a delay of three days or longer in almost 70% of cases. In comparison, once the advocacy service received the referral, 84% of children had an advocate within one day and all within two days. This finding raises important questions about the referral process and—this is key—the level of commitment from local authority staff members to the advocacy provision. That is one of the reasons why I think the Minister must implement section 48 of the Act now so that local authorities have legal duties in relation to advocates.

The evaluation tells us:

“There were many difficulties associated with advocacy work where speaking up for a child required nimble and diplomatic manoeuvring, rather than being able to draw on a legal authority to contribute”

to meetings about the child’s case.

The evaluation identified challenges faced by advocates, and I am glad the Minister intends to look at those and seek to address them in future incarnations of the scheme. However, I do not believe it is necessary to conduct further trials to do so. The Government originally promised to implement the scheme after the trial. The Minister knows that inadequate co-operation from some public authorities, exacerbated by a lack of legal authority, can be resolved only by commencing section 48 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which specifically requires public authorities to recognise and pay due regard to the advocates’ functions and provide them with access to the necessary information about a child’s case. Without bringing section 48 into force, the degree to which public bodies will pay attention to advocates will remain variable, and we will never be able to measure the full potential benefit of the scheme because this depends on statutory recognition, which trials can never give.

In their response to the evaluation report, the Government stated that they would bring proposals about the way forward to Parliament in March. Three months later, the proposals are unpublished, yet since the trials ended nine months ago, vulnerable trafficked children across the country have been left without vital support. Barnardo’s, which delivered the trial advocacy scheme for the Home Office, has continued to provide support to children who entered the trial because it is convinced of its value, but this is to rely on charities once again to step in and cover what should be a statutory responsibility. It is now of the utmost urgency that plans are put in place to make this support available on a wide basis.

Earlier this month, various charities wrote to The Guardian newspaper calling on the Government to act urgently to make independent advocates available to all trafficked children. The charities know, from their work with children, that the delay means many vulnerable children will lack vital support and will be at risk of cruel exploitation. I trust that the Minister will today set out in full the Government’s intentions. I urge her not to proceed with further unnecessary trials, but instead to commence section 48, which provides the best opportunity for acting on the recommendations of the evaluation report and for addressing the challenges it identified, not least that of a lack of legal authority that led to poor collaboration by some local authorities. We must act with urgency to make this provision available and I urge the Minister not to sacrifice the good for the sake of the best, which is what her present course of action risks.

Statutory services can be evaluated and improved when in operation; they often are. As understanding grows about trafficking and the nature of the challenges and risks that children face, there will inevitably be aspects of the advocacy scheme that will need to develop in response. However, the trials have provided sufficient information for the establishment of a permanent country-wide scheme and I hope, although I do not expect, the Minister will put one in place as soon as possible. If she prefers to press ahead with further trials before enacting section 48, I would ask her to heed the advice of the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner to make every effort to avoid unnecessary delays that would result in beginning again from scratch.

If further trials are to be entered into, they must add to the information and knowledge gained from the first stage of the trials and not be an entirely separate process.

I hope that at a minimum the Minister will confirm today that any new trials and evaluation process will include continued monitoring of the situation and outcomes for the children who participated in the first phase. This will mean we can comprehensively assess the impact of the advocacy provision, particularly in the areas of operation where processes can be lengthy, such as the legal cases that did not reach a conclusion during the first trial period.

I also ask the Minister to build into any future trials the possibility for section 48 to be commenced before the end if interim reports are positive. Doing so would enable very needy children around the country to benefit from this important assistance as soon as possible. I know that the Minister is determined to eliminate trafficking and to protect and support its victims, but the delays that we are experiencing are leaving vulnerable children at sea in a bewildering ocean of statutory agencies, coping with a foreign language and unfamiliar processes, as well as in many cases recovering from trauma and exploitation without the support that Parliament, the European Union and the United Nations have all decided they need. Trafficked and separated asylum-seeking children in Scotland have benefited from similar services for several years and will soon do so on a statutory basis. Northern Ireland is also moving forward on this. However, here in England and Wales, where we have responsibility for the majority of trafficked children, we are lagging behind.

I hope to hear today when the Minister plans to commence section 48 of the Modern Slavery Act to make independent child trafficking advocates available for every trafficked child in England and Wales, because vulnerable trafficked children across the country—more than 1,000 kids—have been left without this support. We urgently need to make such support available on a wider basis.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who has been an advocate of this issue for many years. This important issue is vital to children, so I do not intend to be political in my contribution today. I intend to enhance the debate and contribute some of the thoughts from Scotland. I want to make it clear that this issue affects vulnerable children and young people.

The issue is fundamentally important because children are at immediate risk of further harm and exploitation. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children highlights several reasons why children are recruited, moved or transported. These include benefit fraud; forced marriage; domestic servitude such as cleaning, childcare or cooking; forced labour in factories or agriculture; and criminal activity such as pickpocketing, begging, transporting drugs, working in cannabis farms, selling pirated DVDs and petty bag theft. In this range of small, medium and large crimes, children are exploited. They have no advocate to make a case for them and the exploitation that they suffer on a daily basis is absolutely the reason why we must have this debate today.

Trafficked children experience multiple forms of abuse and neglect, including physical, sexual and emotional violence, which is often used to control trafficked children. We are therefore today giving a voice to those children who have been silenced in this process through the absence of the necessary advocacy that is vital to their needs. The right hon. Member for Slough has done a great deal of work on this issue already through her work on the all-party parliamentary group, and I commend her for that.

As the right hon. Lady has highlighted, the National Crime Agency has already identified 982 cases of child trafficking in 2015, as I am sure the Minister is well aware. That is an increase of 46% from 2014. We could on the one hand link this to the refugee crisis, but that would be too crude. The simple fact is that we know this issue is escalating and ultimately we know that we must respond to it. That picture of child trafficking should surely be enough to convince the Minister that victims are desperately in need of independent advocates—people whose role it is to understand what is going on and to represent and support children believed to be the victims of trafficking. That gives those vulnerable children a voice through the care, immigration and criminal justice systems. We understand all too well that, even for adults, those are bureaucratic and lengthy processes and not something that any child should ever have to contend with.

The need for those vital services has already been recognised by Parliament in the Modern Slavery Act 2015 in a section that received widespread cross-party support, so I am sure I am not telling the Minister anything that she does not already know. That led to the child trafficking advocates pilot project, which is provided by Barnardo’s and funded by the Home Office. However, following an independent evaluation of the pilot scheme, the Government have not acted to make independent child trafficking advocates available across England and Wales. That must be done to ensure that young people and children receive the support that they vitally need. I support the calls from various charities, including Barnardo’s, Christian Aid, UNICEF and many others, which were outlined in a letter to The Guardian.

The EU directive on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings highlights the necessity for England and Wales to extend the pilot, which is especially important now. I do not want to labour the current situation around the EU referendum, but we must ultimately accept that we continue to have a responsibility and that these measures to ensure independent advocates for unaccompanied victims of trafficking have come on the back of an EU directive. The failure to appoint an independent guardian with sufficient legal powers means that the UK is currently non-compliant with the EU directive. Again, I do not say that to be political. I say it simply to state the case: measures to stop trafficking cannot be allowed to fail or fall short of international standards. It is therefore important that the Minister ensures that future revisions of the scheme will adhere to international best practice and guidelines. I urge the Government to commence section 48 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and establish a permanent independent advocacy provision as soon as possible.

Turning to Scotland, on which I like to think I have something to contribute, I highlight the work that has been done in Scotland as one model that could be followed by England and Wales. The Scottish Government have made a solid commitment to make provision for independent child trafficking guardians for eligible children. That is part of a wider project to make Scotland a hostile place to trafficking, where it is very clear that child trafficking is not welcome, and to better identify and support potential and confirmed victims. As a result, needless to say, Scotland’s provisions outstrip England and Wales at this time, but that does not mean that England and Wales cannot catch up, and I urge them to do so.

New legislation introduced by the Scottish Government last year—the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015—will protect those subjected to these terrible crimes while punishing those who commit them. The maximum penalty for trafficking was increased from 14 years, as it is in England and Wales, to life imprisonment—a statement of how seriously Scotland takes this.

The Modern Slavery Act, when it was introduced and commenced in July last year, increased the maximum sentence to life imprisonment for all trafficking offences.

I thank the Minister for that intervention. I should have added “as it is in England and Wales” after “life imprisonment”, just to be absolutely clear. Scotland has sent out a message that trafficking will not be tolerated under any circumstances and I urge the UK to do that also. That legislation also underpins the need for independent advocates. It places a duty to ensure protections by making independent child trafficking guardians available and requiring statutory referrals to be made by people who are in a position to do so. Scotland’s law enforcement agencies therefore have greater powers to bring those responsible to justice.

I mentioned previously how abhorrent child trafficking is and I think we all share that thought. That approach must be considered for application across the UK to end those practices. I am sure the Minister shares our collective concerns. She has proven always to be reasoned and thorough in her responses, so I therefore simply urge her not to delay further on section 48 of the Modern Slavery Act and to establish a permanent independent advocate without further delay. Lastly, to echo the beautiful words of the right hon. Member for Slough, “every child needs their person”.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) for setting the scene. We have all said this about her, but we mean it: she has certainly been an advocate for this issue, and it is a pleasure to follow her and add some comments. I will speak about Northern Ireland, including the Northern Ireland legislation that she referred to.

Parliament expressed its view clearly in passing section 48 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. The Government even accepted Members’ criticisms and amended the Bill to make the provision a duty rather than an enabling power, yet they are now choosing to interpret that section as if it were an invitation and not an instruction. That concerns me, and hopefully the Minister will respond to that point. Like the Northern Ireland Assembly, I believe that there is more than enough evidence and best practice available upon which a statutory national service can be based. That evidence comes from a variety of countries, from international organisations, and, closer to home, from Scotland, as the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) said. Consequently, Northern Ireland’s statutory independent guardian service is already in development, as has been mentioned, under section 21 of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015.

The Government, however, had a different opinion and felt that they needed to carry out their own trials to establish whether advocates provide a material benefit and add value to the care provided for children over and above existing services. That is perhaps not surprising in the light of their long-held view that existing children’s services were sufficient to support trafficked children, which I note they continued to profess immediately following the 2013 publication of the Government-funded “Still at risk” report from the Refugee Council and the Children’s Society. That report highlighted the insufficiencies and recommended a new advocate-like role to address them.

I therefore commend the coalition Government for deciding first to establish trials, and then to include child trafficking advocates in the Modern Slavery Act— some good stuff has been done. After the successful completion of the first trials, the Government can now be in no doubt about the beneficial impact of independent advocates, which the right hon. Member for Slough so clearly set out. I simply reiterate that the evaluation report makes clear that

“advocates added value to existing provision, to the satisfaction of the children and most stakeholders.”

It seems to me that the trials entirely fulfilled their purpose. They tested a system, demonstrated that the fundamental provision in question produced clear beneficial outcomes on many different fronts and highlighted areas for improvement in a full-scale implementation. Those improvements can and should be integrated into the new statutory scheme. Conducting further trials would be an unnecessary waste of time and resources. There has already been a delay of six months since the evaluation report was published, and longer since the trials ended. We can only expect further delays as procurement protocols, recruitment processes and other preparatory work, presumably including the setting up of a new evaluation mechanism, are carried out to establish further trials.

Many of the findings of the evaluation report were flagged up early in the interim report. They led to key amendments to section 48, including those relating to the legal powers of advocates and the duty of other public authorities to have due regard to advocates’ role.

Mindful of those considerations, I argue that rather than entertaining further delays through more trials, the time has come for the Minister to take action and to bring section 48 into force. I very much hope that she will confirm in her response, which I look forward to, that that is now the Government’s intention. It cannot be anything less.

If, however, the Minister insists on the expense and delay of yet further trials, I ask her, with respect, to explain how she envisages new trials addressing the gap in authority. How will the Government evaluate the effectiveness of advocates in engaging with local authorities and relevant agencies, given that the trials do not actually trial what is proposed? They deny advocates the statutory status that is central to their being able to deliver their function. It is difficult to see what mechanisms could be used in trials to require local authorities and relevant agencies to give due regard to the advocate’s role and responsibilities that would have a similar weight to a statutory duty. Sadly, the consequences of the delay will be that many vulnerable children across England and Wales have to go without much-needed assistance.

Scotland has of course been leading the way in the UK for some time, and I am pleased to say that Northern Ireland will shortly be joining Scotland in providing statutory independent guardians for both trafficked and separated migrant children. We are pleased to be part of that process, as the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East said, and to follow the clear direction that Scotland has taken. It is a matter of great regret that trafficked children in England and Wales will not have the same access to support as those in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

When the lives of vulnerable children are at stake, it is imperative that we act with urgency, and we need urgency in the Minister’s response today. Does she really want it to be said that the worst place to be a trafficked child in the UK is in England and Wales, because the statutory rights and protections are weaker? I certainly hope not. I urge her to unblock the logjam that is holding up the commencement of section 48 and to act swiftly to enable every trafficked child in England and Wales to have an independent child trafficking advocate as soon as is humanly possible. I also ask her to address how she will ensure that separated migrant children in England and Wales will not be at a disadvantage compared with children in Scotland and Northern Ireland, who will have access to independent guardians.

It is a pleasure to speak on this matter, and it is important that the issues involved are stressed. I believe that England and Wales should follow Northern Ireland and Scotland’s examples, and I say in all honesty that it would be remiss of the Minister not to give a clear direction on that today. I look forward to her response, as well as that of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion).

We now move on to the Front-Bench speeches. It is worth pointing out that the debate can go on until 4.26 pm, but of course it does not have to.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Streeter. This is clearly an important and emotive issue—I do not think anything rallies the human spirit quite like looking after children, whether they be our own children or trafficked children, and particularly vulnerable children who need our help.

The right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) made a vivid and skilled contribution. She clearly has a great deal of knowledge of the issue, and I pay tribute to her for securing the debate and for the work that she has done on the all-party group, which I have learned a lot about in the last couple of days having read up on the subject. I commend you for that very good and sincere work. You provided vivid summaries of the experiences of the trial and put into context how it benefited children.

What came out of your speech was that trust is the central plank of why an advocate is so essential. The role of the advocate creates trust in the system by integrating children into society and giving them hope, and it creates trust in the advocates themselves. The alternative is further overburdening an already overburdened social work department with extra responsibilities, which it clearly would not have the resources to meet. I was interested to hear you talk about the positive feedback from the trials that have already taken—

Apologies, Mr Streeter. I was commending the right hon. Member for Slough because I was interested to hear about the positive feedback from the trials that she spoke of. That prompts a question, which I hope the Minister can help us with later: why on earth were they pulled, and why has section 48 not been invoked since that happened? I would be grateful to hear some answers to that. It is telling that, as she said, Barnardo’s has continued its advocacy policy since the conclusion of the trials. That organisation is dedicated solely to looking after vulnerable children, so if it sees the benefits of advocates, we should all sit up and take note.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) made a point that I would like to echo: this is not about politics. This is not about us in Scotland, Northern Ireland, or any jurisdiction telling another jurisdiction that we are doing a better job. We simply care about the kids, wherever they are; whether they are in Scotland, England, the European Union or the wider world, we want vulnerable children to be protected. It is not to score political points that we say that Scotland is perhaps more advanced in what it is doing; it is to provide a constructive comparison so that we can all look after the children in question. My hon. Friend provided an excellent summary of the position in Scotland, which I am sure the Minister has taken note of.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made a powerful point about the need to invoke section 48 immediately. He made the important point that the criterion upon which we should assess the trials is material benefit to children. From what I have heard today and read in preparation for this debate, it strikes me that the trials did have that benefit. If we keep that principle at the forefront of our mind when assessing what happened in the trials, hopefully it will lead us to invoke section 48 so that, frankly, we can get on with it.

I did not think my speech would be complete without hearing from the children themselves. I have a testimony from a child in Scotland who has been through the system there. She says of her advocate:

“I was happy, she was so nice, so nice about everything, we go to different appointments together.”

She said her guardian really

“calmed me down when I was upset. After the appointment she and I would meet and talk together about what happened, and she advised me. She was more than a worker for me, because she was someone I could talk to.”

She said her social worker was very nice, but she had only met her

“for 3 hours in 9 months. We are like strangers when we talk together. But with my Guardian, I talk to her”.

She says that she trusts her guardian and that

“she puts me at…ease”.

She feels as if she can now live her life.

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, I think for the first time, Mr Streeter. I would like to add to the compliments that have been given to my right hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) for securing this debate, for the campaigning work that she has been doing tirelessly and vigorously around this one issue and for the work that she has done on modern slavery and on the APPG on human trafficking and modern day slavery. That is not just to bolster my right hon. Friend’s ego, but because I really hope the Minister takes seriously the weight of her experience and the weight of support from colleagues across the House when she called for this debate.

The scale of human trafficking in the UK and the implications for the victims are far beyond most people’s comprehension. As the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) said, last year 982 children were recorded as being victims of trafficking by the UK Human Trafficking Centre’s national referral mechanism, but it is accepted—and the Centre accepts—that that is a massive underrepresentation of the true extent of the problem. The Government’s own estimate puts the total number of people in slavery in the UK at around 13,000, with approximately 3,000 of those thought to be under the age of 18.

Trafficked children are some of our country’s most vulnerable children, often suffering years of abuse and exploitation. Those children are at significantly greater risk of harm. That remains true, to our great shame, even after they are in the care of the state. In its 2013 report, the Centre for Social Justice estimated that 60% of trafficked children in local authority care go missing, and that those who go missing are often highly likely to be returned to exploitation. Often children are so terrified and brainwashed by their trafficker that they will leave at the first possible opportunity and return to that abuser. Trafficked children are the responsibility of us all, yet their suffering is often overlooked and misunderstood, even by the professionals who work most closely with them. It is for this reason that these children need someone independent by their side and on their side as they navigate their way through the immigration, social care and justice systems.

Section 48 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 sets out provisions for trafficked children to be assigned an independent child trafficking advocate. Their role is to represent and support the child, promote the child’s wellbeing, assist in obtaining advice and representation and hold public authorities to account; their sole aim is to support that vulnerable child. As we have heard, a system of independent child trafficking advocates was piloted in 23 local authorities in England from September 2014 and into 2015. The independent evaluation, conducted by the University of Bedfordshire, found that the trial was successful and the service helped to keep children “safely visible”. Most importantly, the children themselves overwhelmingly found the role of their advocate positive in their lives and described them as “reliable and trustworthy”.

Children’s charities such as ECPAT—I thank it for all the help that it has given me on this issue—and Barnardo’s, all the UK’s children’s commissioners, the British Association of Social Workers, and many more have been campaigning for legal guardianship or advocacy for trafficked children for many years. It is a concept that is recognised and valued internationally. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, in its recent examination of the UK’s implementation of its recommendations, once again urged the UK to adopt:

“Statutory independent guardians for all unaccompanied and separated children”.

Further, both the Northern Irish and the Scottish Governments, as we have heard, have included independent guardians in their new trafficking legislation. Both countries have accepted, without delay, the need for such a system, and are currently drafting regulations to create their own statutory systems, but this Government cannot even keep to their own deadline of March this year to make a simple decision on the future of the scheme.

In the meantime, hundreds, if not thousands, of trafficked children have been denied their right to independent advocacy. The provision for independent child trafficking advocates in the Modern Slavery Act 2015 was the only substantial, dedicated part of the legislation for children, yet it is the only part to not be enacted. Adult victims of trafficking in the UK receive a specialist response from trained organisations used to working with victims, but that is not the case for children who end up in the care system, often supported by social workers and others who may have had no training whatever on trafficking.

Without independent advocates, some of the most vulnerable children in our country, including British children trafficked internally for sexual exploitation, must face the complexities and bureaucracies of our care, justice and immigration systems alone. The pilot was criticised and the evaluation found a complex picture of children going missing, but the Government used this as an excuse for why the trial was not immediately continued and expanded.

Children going missing is a complex issue and not something that can be solved with one simple solution. To expect that advocates could stop children going missing is simplistic and misleading, and is actually not the main focus of the job. There are multiple factors that can lead to a child going missing: being brainwashed to return to their traffickers; inappropriate or unsafe placements; failure to apprehend traffickers; the criminalisation of children who have been exploited; and different agencies failing to communicate. It is, of course, hoped that having independent advocates will help to decrease those issues and, in turn, help to reduce a child’s likelihood of going missing, but we must remember that not all trafficked children go missing.

Of the children in the trial that did go missing and had an advocate, more than half had not actually met their advocate due to delays in referrals to Barnardo’s by the local authorities. In fact, only 19% of all referrals to Barnardo’s by local authorities were on time. Will the Government commit to investigating the causes of the extensive delays in referring children to the advocacy service?

Under the Modern Slavery Act, since November 2015, public authorities have had a duty to notify the Secretary of State if they come across a potential victim of trafficking. How many such reports have been made, in particular for children, and what is being done to ensure that front-line practitioners know they have this new duty? Furthermore, will the Government address the issue of visibility of advocates in their relevant local authorities, immigration channels, local safeguarding boards and the criminal justice process, as highlighted in the evaluation?

It is simply not acceptable, or fair, that children who have been exploited are given such a poor service. The scale of trafficking and abuse in Rotherham highlighted the inability of public authorities to deal with exploitation cases, which left thousands of children disbelieved, disengaged and vulnerable to further exploitation. A system that has been independently shown to benefit these children, to build trust and to increase their visibility to services is not a luxury, but a necessity, if we wish to tackle modern slavery and child exploitation.

Will the Minister clarify how the Government plan to eradicate modern slavery and be “world leading” in their response to trafficking, when they are delaying a scheme that is known to benefit and protect children and is already established in many European countries? I agree with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and ask whether the Minister thinks it is acceptable that children who have been trafficked in Scotland or Northern Ireland will be guaranteed better provision and support than those in England and Wales. Will the Government now act immediately to establish a national scheme of independent child advocates based on the model that was independently evaluated as a success? The Minster has it within her gift to simply tweak, test and modify elements of the scheme throughout its delivery. It is immoral that the Government are procrastinating on the issue and denying trafficked children their right to independent advocacy and the chance to a better, safer future.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I believe that it is not the first occasion, but I hope it is not the last. I welcome the opportunity for the House to focus on what we all agree is a most challenging and important topic, and for me to set out clearly the Government’s position.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) on securing the debate and on her contribution to this country’s leading work on modern slavery and human trafficking. Through her position as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking and modern day slavery and on the Modern Slavery Bill Committee, she has contributed more than many other people and deserves great credit. There are other Members, both here and in the other place, who have also devoted themselves to promoting the issue of child victims of trafficking and making their lives better. I have been grateful for and impressed by the individual and collective achievements on the issue.

Let me be clear from the outset: supporting trafficked children remains a key priority for the Government. I appreciate how many hon. Members are impatient for progress—so am I. We are talking about a vulnerable group of children, who deserve the utmost support and protection. We must ensure that our response is the right one to best support trafficked children. I value the conversations that I have had with many Members who are here today, with those in the other place and with other key stakeholders including Barnardo’s, to which I pay tribute for its work on the trial, ECPAT, UNICEF and the independent anti-slavery commissioner. We have discussed the critical issues and developed better solutions, and I am particularly grateful for all the frankness and honest insights.

The right hon. Member for Slough and others have referred to the delay. It is not a delay to procrastinate; it is about getting it right. She mentioned the Government’s commitment to report in March. I had hoped that we could fulfil that commitment but, when her all-party group and others voiced significant concerns, I did not want to make an announcement that we would need to go back on. I wanted to work with her and other stakeholders to ensure that we got it right.

I do not intend to go into the details of the trial but I want to address a few points regarding its effectiveness. I have listened carefully today and in earlier discussions, and although many good things came from the trial, I cannot agree that it was an unequivocal, resounding success. The outcomes were equivocal. The trial showed some benefits—the children felt listened to and other professionals reported that the advocates were able to co-ordinate different agencies effectively—but in other areas, there were severe limitations.

The evaluation raised a number of operational issues that required further work, including the process for referring children to advocates; the high incidence of missing children, which I will come to shortly; the fact that advocates did not have the legal powers that had been invested in them by the Modern Slavery Act; and the fact that, in some areas, the service was not visible to many agencies.

The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) expressed concern about whether the country was compliant with the EU directive. We are already fully compliant with the EU directive and the Council of Europe convention. Existing provisions ensure that the relevant statutory agencies meet the international obligations. With the trials, we are looking to do additional work to support trafficked children over and above those obligations.

I have to disagree that children going missing is just something that will happen. We should not see that as acceptable. I understand that there is a problem, and I have a round-table discussion on missing children later this week. I am determined that we make the police response and other responses to missing children part and parcel of everyday work. Those are the children who are trafficked. They are the adults who have mental health problems and find themselves locked up in police cells when they should not be. They are the children who are sexually exploited. We cannot stand by and say that it is acceptable that children go missing. A child’s safety and welfare must be the overriding consideration of any child in the care of the Government, where we are acting as their parent.

I have not heard anyone suggest today that it is somehow acceptable that children are going missing. What people find unacceptable is that the enforcement and implementation of section 48 of the Modern Slavery Act is missing. There seems to be dereliction in the name of perfection. The fact that the pilot showed a need for improvement does not disprove the need for the provisions of section 48.

The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) has made the point that I wanted to make, which is that no one in this Chamber today has said that it is acceptable that children are going missing. No one has said that the Government are wrong to focus on the needs of missing children. I and other Members have said that the advocacy scheme on its own was never going to be able to prevent children from going missing. The fact that some children went missing should therefore not be used as a reason for delaying the implementation of the advocacy scheme. It might be used as a reason for taking additional steps, such as the risk assessment to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) referred, to help prevent children from being added to the large number who go missing.

I apologise to the right hon. Lady if she thinks I implied that anyone in this room had said that it is acceptable that children are going missing—I withdraw any suggestion that that was the case. However, the fact remains that just as many children who had an advocate in the pilot went missing as other children, if not more. I take the point that that might be because they had not met their advocate, so we have to get it right and ensure that children do meet their advocate.

I fully appreciate that the scheme is not the silver bullet to resolve the issue of children going missing, but I am determined to ensure that we find a way to make a difference using advocates, who should be there to help prevent young people from going missing. We must stop children maintaining contact with their traffickers, as I suspect some probably have. It is important that we find a way to get this right. I take the point that we should not let perfection get in the way, but that is simply not what is happening.

There were other equivocal issues in the trial. Some children never met their advocate—some went missing before meeting them and some did not meet them full stop—and others did so only infrequently. There was limited evidence of advocates having an impact by assisting children in navigating and getting a better outcome from the immigration or criminal justice systems; in accessing the right health and education services; or even in getting better referrals to, and receiving improved outcomes from, the national referral mechanism. The fact that not all children who were trafficked and had an advocate went into the national referral mechanism raises concerns.

The evaluation highlighted that, in a number of areas to which the Minister is referring, the timeline of immigration administration, for example, did not fit the timeline of the evaluation process, so it was not possible for some of those points to be concluded. I have not heard any reason for not implementing section 48. She wants to improve the scheme, but how will continuing without the legislative back-up of section 48 enable the scheme to improve? I do not understand that.

I hope the right hon. Lady will forgive me, but I have a little more progress to make.

I welcome the comments from all hon. Members on the comparison with Scotland and Northern Ireland, but it is important that we reflect on the relative scale and complexities of the problem in England and Wales, where we need to work with many different social services, legal systems and police forces. I assure Members that we have taken on board all the learning from the Scottish Guardianship Service, but the circumstances and the models are different. The service in Scotland is only for children for whom no one has taken parental responsibility, and in such circumstances children in England and Wales will receive support from a social worker and, if there are care proceedings, a children’s guardian. We have kept wider criteria for receiving an advocate in the Modern Slavery Act. We have carefully considered what has been done in Scotland, and we have taken much learning from the schemes in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but it is important that we reflect on the differences between the legal systems.

A number of serious questions raised in the model testing tell us that, although the model shows great promise, it is not universally effective. I am convinced that independent advocacy has an important and central role to play in supporting children, but as the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner has told me in correspondence, further work is needed to get the model fit for purpose. He remains concerned about the lack of evidence from the trial. Although advocates can clearly play a crucial role, we need to consider the whole package, which is centred on each child’s individual needs. This is simply too important to get wrong. We need to ensure that all child victims of modern slavery are properly identified and supported.

Turning to what I intend to do, I am pleased to announce a full package of measures that, collectively, will improve the support we offer to child victims of trafficking. I make it clear so that no one is in any doubt that I am fully committed to commencing section 48 of the Modern Slavery Act and to the full national roll-out across England and Wales of independent advocates for all trafficked children. To support that, following the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner’s advice, I also propose two interim measures to improve advocacy now and to prepare for the implementation of the new system as soon as possible.

First, I propose to introduce independent child trafficking advocates at three early adopter sites. The competition for providing those sites will be launched this summer. The sites will enable us to refine the model that was previously tested, including by increasing the speed of referral and the number of people and organisations that can make such referrals; testing the use of quasi-legal powers by advocates and the impact that that will have on their effectiveness and their relationships with statutory agencies; and training and recruiting advocates with specialist skills, such as in certain languages or in dealing with particular forms of abuse, so that they can give more targeted support.

Secondly, in collaboration with the Department for Education, the Home Office will commission a training programme for existing independent advocates, who are statutorily provided to all looked-after children. The training will improve their awareness and understanding of the specific needs of trafficked children and how to support them. But that is not enough. I am also determined to address the other concerns raised in both the trial and the feedback from right hon. and hon. Members.

I am therefore pleased to announce that this year the Home Office will establish and launch a new child trafficking protection fund, with up to £3 million of Government funding initially available over the next three years. The fund will be targeted at addressing two key issues where advocacy alone appears to be insufficient and where alternative and additional approaches are needed. The first aim is to reduce the number of children who go missing or who have contact with traffickers. The second is to support children from high-priority states, from which we continually see high numbers of children trafficked to the UK. I want to explore how we can best meet the needs of such children and disrupt the traffickers who target them. We all agree that a culturally targeted approach is likely to be effective and, having listened to stakeholders, we have decided to launch the fund to promote innovation from stakeholders in all sectors who work with trafficked children and know how best to meet their needs. Critically, such discrete funding could support bespoke local and innovative strategies.

[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]

Can the Minister provide a bit more clarity? Is this Home Office money? Is it targeted at UK work? What does she mean by “this year”? Is it this academic year, financial year or chronological year?

That may be one of the detailed points on which I will have to get back to the hon. Lady. I will talk about some of the other points at this stage, but maybe I will write to her with the specifics.

I want to address the concerns raised about accommodation. We are doing two things about that. First, as the Immigration Minister announced earlier this year, we are taking forward plans to review local authority support for non-European economic are migrant children who have been trafficked. The review will help improve our understanding of specialist local authority provisions for that group as we implement the Modern Slavery Act.

Additionally, the Department for Education is rolling out training for foster carers and support workers that will equip them to understand better the complexities facing unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who have been trafficked, and to gain their trust to prevent them from running away from safe placements. We are already piloting a new way of delivering the national referral mechanism. The pilot is testing new models of identifying victims, processing cases and making effective decisions. It will help ensure that all victims, including children, can access the support that they need. To underpin all that work, we are developing new statutory guidance on identifying and supporting potential victims of modern slavery and trafficking, on which we intend to consult later this year. It includes specific guidance on how best to support child victims of modern slavery.

Looking more widely, many services that trafficked children receive will be the same as for all children, although tailored to them individually. That is particularly true for children in need or looked-after children. Although only part of our approach, incorporating provision for all trafficked children into what is already there, not increasing their isolation, is the way forward. Setting trafficked children apart runs the risk, among other things, of reinforcing their sense of isolation and further increasing their vulnerabilities.

I appreciate that many hon. Members, like me, may be frustrated that establishing independent child trafficking advocates will take some time, as we need to find and train them, and that they may have concerns about how child victims will be better supported in the short term. That is why I have put forward a range of shorter and longer-term proposals and addressed areas where advocacy does not appear to be the only or best solution. We need to get it right. We must strike the right balance between requirements in secondary legislation, statutory guidance and a provider contract, and I need to engage further with right hon. and hon. Members and others to determine how best to do that, including informally via the modern slavery strategy implementation group, with key voluntary and statutory partners and, of course, via a public consultation exercise, followed in due course by the necessary parliamentary processes.

That will happen in step with a public procurement exercise to seek a provider for the national service. We will monitor outcomes for children who have an advocate in the early adopter sites, and look at whether children are generally being helped across a range of key areas including safety, wellbeing, health, education and criminal justice. We will use the learning from the early adopter sites to refine the model for independent child trafficking advocates, which will then be rolled out across England and Wales.

One issue that Kevin Hyland and I have both raised is whether the further assessment can build on the learning from the original pilot. Can the Minister assure the House that she will continue to draw on the information from the first round of pilots, so that we do not waste all that work but use it to inform what she is doing?

The right hon. Lady makes an important point and is absolutely right. We need to take what we have already learned, look at early adopter sites and trial new and refined ways of working as we roll out the national process.

The point is that we want to do this right. We will start the process for a national roll-out without delay by ensuring that we have early adopter sites, so that we can trial what we know is successful from the first trial as well as new and different ways of looking at the situation. Although it will take time, I assure all hon. Members that I am determined to move as quickly as possible towards achieving those steps, and in the meantime to implement the immediate improvements that I have outlined. I ask for the continued support of all during that process and stress again that we must get it right for the sake of trafficked children.

I reiterate my commitment to providing an independent advocate to all children who have been trafficked within or into England and Wales, and to getting the arrangements for independent advocates right. The most important thing is to support and protect all trafficked children and ensure that the role of advocates is fully effective. We cannot rush it and risk relying on a sticking-plaster approach on the assumption that we think we have the answer. We must implement fully a considered, holistic and proven solution that meets the needs of trafficked children, who are already vulnerable and may, tragically, be subject to future harm, including from their trafficker, even after coming into the protection system.

I thank the right hon. Member for Slough once again for raising this important issue—I know that she will continue to raise it, and I look forward to that—and for giving me the opportunity to set out the Government’s work. I look forward to our continued dialogue and meetings on this complex issue. I will write to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on her specific points, and I assure all Members that I will reflect most carefully on their considered comments and helpful suggestions.

I thank everybody who has contributed to this debate. It is clear how seriously people from all parts of the House take our duty to protect vulnerable children. I am still worried that the Minister risks making the perfect the enemy of the good. In her concluding remarks, I did not hear a commitment to offer the sites that she calls early adopter sites the backing of section 48, which is the legal power that advocates need in order to be listened to properly by local authorities. It would be helpful to know—

I apologise if I did not make this clear: the concern that we had in the trial was that advocates were not using the powers given to them in the Modern Slavery Act. Those legal powers will be available to advocates in the early adopter sites.

I hope that that means that section 48 will be in place, even if the Minister does it in a way that enables it to be rolled out in places. It is quite clear that without it, local authorities will treat advocates as just the guy from Barnardo’s, which is just not good enough and does not protect children.

The other thing that I did not hear is a response to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) about risk assessment. I think I heard a bit of a response when the Minister said that it is not in the interests of trafficked children to put them in a “trafficked children only” box. I felt that that might be a way of resisting proposals to assess, for example, Vietnamese gardeners as being at acute risk of disappearing.

As well as the work that the Minister has described, it is essential to establish a national system of risk assessment that is available to local authorities to protect the children who are at most risk of disappearing. Even if advocates on their own are not sufficient protection, we know that certain groups of children are at particularly acute risk. Designing a scheme that recognises the acuteness of risk to particular groups of children would therefore be sensible, and it would be likely to reduce the incidence of children from those particular groups disappearing.

The right hon. Lady’s point involves missing children. We are considering fully the points made by the all-party group in the inquiry on missing children, to which I gave evidence and in which I have been very interested. I will respond shortly.

Good, except that “shortly” in the Minister’s life and my life is “longly” in the life of a 14-year-old. That is the problem that we face. It is not that we believe the Government do not want to do this, or that they have locked the issue in a cupboard and are ignoring it; that is not my accusation. I have a deep concern about the delays that we have faced since we introduced the Act. The Minister, the Home Secretary and many other Ministers have said how wonderful the Act is. It is important legislation, but only if it exists in reality on the ground everywhere. That is necessary if we are to protect children.

I heard the Minister’s perfectly reasonable answer about how the civil service does things, how we are going to run the competition for early adopter sites and so on. I realise that this is not a quick process, but I worry that we are in for more months of delay and that there will be more children who do not have the person they need. It is important that the Minister quickly ensures that section 48 is in place, and that she considers what is at risk of being missed out of the process. The risk is that in trying to design a system that is perfect, we will leave too many children without a person they trust, who can help them to negotiate the ghastly bureaucracy that they will face.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered independent advocates for trafficked children.

Sitting suspended.