My Lords, the Prime Minister recently announced that the UK intends to sign the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, and the Home Secretary is liaising with colleagues across government on how to progress this issue as quickly as possible.
My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that the delay is becoming inexplicable? On the Joint Committee on Human Rights, on which I serve, we listened to witnesses working in the front line with these unfortunate people, and the story was harrowing and moving. Too often, they are seen as just a troublesome extension of the immigration problem, as distinct from women in danger and in dire need of support and help. When will we send a clear message to all concerned in this country, and to all those in Europe and the world, that we stand absolutely firm and resolute in condemning this beastly trade and in supporting all those who are endeavouring to help these women in their predicament?
My Lords, my sentiments are entirely with my noble friend Lord Judd. I am sure he listened carefully to what I said, which was that it is our very firm intention to sign the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings for the very reasons my noble friend set out in his supplementary. We have always said that we are wholly sympathetic to the objectives behind the Council of Europe convention, which, as I am sure we all appreciate, will provide greater support for all victims of trafficking and continue our fight against organised immigration crime, something that is at the very top of our political agenda.
My Lords, as always, I welcome the Government’s commitment to sign up to the convention. Is the Minister aware that delay costs lives? Practical measures can be taken now to protect trafficked children. Is the Minister aware of the report by ECPAT, published last week, which points out that of the 80 children rescued by government agencies from trafficking, two-thirds have gone missing and are back in the hands of traffickers? What will the Government do to protect them now?
My Lords, we continue to take firm action. The ECPAT report does not absolutely identify the 48 missing children—we are not fully apprised of all the circumstances set out in the report—but we continue to ensure that proper enforcement measures are taken. Certainly, with the measures that we have put in place in the past few years, this Government take the issue very seriously, which is why we support projects such as the Poppy project, through the Eaves housing project, and so on, providing all the opportunities that we can to ensure that proper standards of child protection are in place.
My Lords, is it not essential that when these unfortunate women manage to escape they are not sent back to their country of origin? The country of origin may well be the place where they were abducted by a criminal gang in the first place. Returning them to their country of origin may mean returning them to a family that does not want to accept them because they are regarded as dishonoured. Could we not adopt a more compassionate attitude in such cases?
My Lords, we do that and that is why we have made the announcement that we intend to sign the Council of Europe convention, which will put that firmly in place. But, of course, it is important that we develop our policy further to ensure that the 30-day reflection period and the protection that is offered to victims are in place and are well supported.
My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the long-delayed promise to sign the convention, but when will the Government ratify it? So many conventions have been signed but not ratified.
Before Christmas, we were promised an action plan on trafficking that was supposed to be published last year. It was to come out in January, and we are now well into January. When will it be in our hands?
My Lords, we have made it clear that we will ratify the convention. An absolute date for signing up to it is still an open question. A number of states, including us, have yet to do that.
On the action plan, we launched a three-month national consultation exercise on proposals in January of last year. The proposals are being developed. The consultation period ended in the middle of last summer with many responses. We are obviously keen to ensure that they are properly fed into developing the plan so that the consultation document, which was welcomed, gives full effect to our policy intentions.
My Lords, the Children’s Society is reporting cases of trafficked children in the south-east of England being arrested during factory raids and prosecuted for illegal working. Are the Government aware of these specific instances? In the light of what the Minister said about the consultations over a trafficking action plan, what precise matters will be addressed by the Government at this moment?
My Lords, I am not in a position to provide precise details. Operations such as Operation Pentameter do pick people up, particularly minors. We must ensure that they are adequately cared for through social services. It is a difficult exercise. I am happy to write to the right reverend Prelate and share more detailed information with him.
My Lords, is it not clear, as was revealed in the recent debate in your Lordships’ House, that the extent of this trafficking is such that a mere commitment in words is not enough? The minimum step is to sign up to the European convention.
My Lords, I have indicated that that is our policy intention. We continue to develop important policies to ensure that we have strategies in place to deal with the fall-out of doing so and to provide the proper protection that young people, in particular, deserve.
My Lords, is it not outrageous that, the Prime Minister having said that he would sign the convention, we are now prevaricating? This convention must be not only signed but ratified, and we must have a timetable for ratification soon. While this is happening, women and children—girls and young boys—are going through terrible, horrendous lives and many are being killed.
My Lords, I agree with the need for a timetable, which is being developed across government. It is essential that we get it spot on, because this is an important issue. I am sure that your Lordships’ House is fully in support of our overall approach.