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People Trafficking: Operation Pentameter

Volume 689: debated on Wednesday 31 January 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will repeat Operation Pentameter, concerning trafficked women, in the near future.

My Lords, the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre has already commenced planning for Pentameter 2. Although the precise scope, timeframe and scale of the operation have not yet been finalised, it is intended that it will take place during 2007.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. Is not much greater clarity desirable on who does what in relation to both trafficked adults and trafficked children? Will the Government do their best to resolve the underlying tension between immigration law and policy and the proper care of victims of crime?

My Lords, I agree that it is important that we have high-quality, high-grade co-ordination. That is why in June last year we launched the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre, which came about partly as a result of the success of Operation Pentameter, which was a national police-led multi-agency operation, as the noble Lord will know. On his second point, I agree that Governments attempt to achieve that very difficult exercise. We need to keep the two things in balance in protecting our borders—ensuring that we have sensible immigration legislation and regulation in place, while dealing with those who are victims of trafficking with care and compassion.

My Lords, the Minister recently announced that the Government were putting together a timetable for the signing of the Council of Europe's treaty on human trafficking and for ratification of the treaty. It would be better if we could know when that timetable is to be announced, as there is great concern in all parts of this House.

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to say that we need to have a route map and timetable set out. We are wholly sympathetic with the objectives behind the Council of Europe convention. We are compliant with most, if not all, the convention provisions on enforcement and criminalisation but, as I am sure that she will appreciate, it is only right that we seek to get things in good order before we proceed. We have signed up to it; we then move to ratification; but we want to ensure that before ratifying conventions, we have all the domestic legislation and guidance in place.

My Lords, it is clearly reassuring to hear that the exercise will be repeated, but can the Minister tell us what the ongoing benefits of the previous exercise have been? In particular, are the police able to reassure trafficked women that if they come to them with their story, they will be protected against the vengeance of those who have trafficked them?

My Lords, there are continuing benefits from the original operation, which identified 84 victims, some minors aged 14 to 17. More than 230 people were arrested and more than 130 charged. Those charges varied greatly, but many of them were very serious. That has enabled us to have a much better picture and understanding of the true nature and extent of trafficking. The Government continue to put money into the POPPY project, which helps victims of trafficking to recover and develop a sense of where they need to go next.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that as recently as last week, in Strasbourg, in the plenary session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the president of UNICEF called on all Governments of the member states of the Council of Europe to sign and ratify the convention as one of the most important steps? She emphasised the urgency of that. If there are obstacles in existing legislation that prevent us signing it, as my noble friend seemed to imply, can he tell us what they are and not only the timetable for signing and ratification but how we propose to get over those obstacles?

My Lords, I entirely agree that it is urgent that we proceed with the matter, but I am sure that the noble Lord will agree that we need to ensure that we have our policies, procedures and guidance properly in place before we move forward. Only three countries have moved from signing to ratification. Greatly to our credit, during our presidency in 2005, the UK took an important lead in this policy field towards ensuring that we have effective measures in place to combat trafficking.

My Lords, I am not in a position to make that evaluation or judgment. That is why we need to carry on doing the research and undertaking the current operations. It would be misleading of me to make an off-the-cuff assessment, as the noble Lord suggests.

My Lords, at the end of last year, we were promised an action plan on human trafficking and that it would be published before the end of 2006. Right at the beginning of this year, we were told that it had been delayed but that it would be published during January. This is the last day of January. Why this delay? Why are the Government dragging their feet on such important issues?

My Lords, we properly consulted on tackling human trafficking. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that this is a complex area of policy and one that we need to get right. There were many responses to the consultation document, and they dealt very comprehensively with issues of prevention, investigation, prosecution, and the support of victims. I emphasise that the Government and law enforcement agencies want to ensure that we get our policies in the right order. Only then can we ensure that victims of human trafficking are properly protected.

My Lords, will the Minister answer the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson? Is it right that substantial amendments to our law would be involved in ratification of the convention, or is it wrong?

My Lords, that is one of the important issues and one reason why it has taken longer to resolve some of these issues than we would have otherwise desired. We may well have to reflect on our current legislative arrangements for dealing with these issues.