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People Trafficking

Volume 686: debated on Thursday 2 November 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

When they will sign the European Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings.

My Lords, the United Kingdom is currently considering whether to sign the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. The Government are examining how the convention’s approach could best be harmonised with effective immigration controls.

My Lords, I am partially grateful to the Minister for her reply, but can she say how many people are estimated to have been trafficked into the United Kingdom over, say, the past five years? Secondly, this morning I received a note from the Foreign Office saying that 131 treaties had not been ratified by the United Kingdom. Of the 46 member states of the Council of Europe, 25 have ratified the convention on human trafficking. Why has the United Kingdom been unable to do so? Should we not take a very visible lead in all these humanitarian causes?

My Lords, I reassure the noble Lord that we do take a lead in these humanitarian causes. Although a number of countries have signed the convention, very few have ratified it. It is very difficult to say how many people are trafficked, because one has to differentiate between those who may assert that that has happened and those to whom it has happened. I shall certainly write to the noble Lord about cases where convictions have been established, because those are better numbers. I am not sure whether we have a definitive number for that, but I shall use my best endeavours to get the noble Lord the details that he seeks.

My Lords, my noble friend will know that the convention is not the only international instrument to control that cruel trade. In 2004, an optional protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child entered into force on protecting children from all forms of sexual exploitation. Is the UK still not in a position to ratify that? How much longer will the Home Office’s review of the articles of that instrument take?

My Lords, we are not in a position to ratify it now. Your Lordships will know that the United Kingdom has taken its treaty responsibilities very seriously indeed and will sign treaties only when we are absolutely committed to all their terms and to their delivery. I assure my noble friend that this issue is of the utmost importance to us.

My Lords, it is not possible to say whether the trafficking of children has increased, but I assure the noble Baroness that, as a result of our attention to this issue, our ability to respond creatively and positively—through our action plan and the actions that we are taking—has certainly increased.

My Lords, the Home Office has published an estimate of 4,000 people who have been trafficked to the United Kingdom, and the figure was published also in a House of Commons Library note in September 2006. If that many people in the United Kingdom have been victims of trafficking, why are there so few prosecutions under either the Sexual Offences Act 2003 or the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004, which criminalised trafficking for sexual purposes and other purposes respectively? Is it because the police do not have to look to a key performance indicator that measures their performance on the detection and prosecution of these offences?

My Lords, I do not think that it is. One of the difficulties is that sufficient evidence must be found to substantiate someone’s claim that they have been trafficked and to justify a prosecution. One of the things that we have been able to do through the action plan is to help professionals better understand how trafficking occurs and to enable them to take more positive and effective action to prosecute it. The different models of operation that we have been able to run are proving successful.

My Lords, will the Minister say which countries are the worst offenders on trafficking and what action the Government are taking to encourage them to suppress it?

My Lords, it would be invidious for me to identify any particular country. However, our foreign policy means that we are engaging with all countries on this matter because all are either purveyors or receivers of trafficked people. It is an issue on which we must all engage. The UK action plan, which we are putting together, will enable us to respond to this terrible scourge in a much more targeted and, we hope, effective way.

My Lords, concerns have been expressed about the dangers of an increase in this evil trade when Bulgaria and Romania enter the EU on 1 January. Do the Government share those concerns and, if so, what action is being taken?

My Lords, I hear what my noble friend says about those concerns. I reassure the House that we have been working very successfully with our colleagues in Bulgaria and Romania on crime. One of the benefits of that close relationship is that we are better able to interdict this and other crimes across Europe.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Italian Government are much more experienced in this matter than we are, particularly in protecting those victims of trafficking who need a period of reflection when they are arrested? Will she confirm that the Italian Government have contributed to the UK’s action plan and that discussions are being held?

My Lords, we have looked at what other countries have done in this area so that we can learn how to respond better. The UK action plan on human trafficking includes action on many ways in which children are trafficked, not only for sexual exploitation but for exploitation of labour. This is a very broad-ranging plan, and we are considering the best information that we have to ensure that that action really bites on this evil and pernicious crime.