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People Trafficking

Volume 698: debated on Thursday 24 January 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to contribute to the Vienna Forum on the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (13 to 15 February 2008); and to introduce policies to eliminate the modern-day slave trade in all its forms both at home and abroad.

The noble Baroness said: I am grateful for this opportunity to ask the Government this Question and I thank all noble Lords who will be speaking on the subject, which concerns one of the most cruel and systematic forms of human rights violations in the world today.

In the year following the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, we must not forget that, although the slave trade was criminalised, it has never been abolished. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares:

“No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms”.

The European Convention on Human Rights echoes this. It states:

“No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour”.

Yet, more than half a century after these landmark documents, and 200 years after the efforts of William Wilberforce and his friends, the modern-day slave trade, including human trafficking, flourishes.

The US State Department estimates that someone is being deceived or coerced into exploitation by trafficking across borders every single minute, and that 27 million men, women and children are still suffering from trafficking and other forms of slavery. That is why we can welcome the launch last year of the UN’s Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking and the Vienna Forum next month, which aim to provide a multi-stakeholder global framework for action against human trafficking. Through raising awareness and assisting in the fight against all forms of trafficking and enslavement anywhere in the world, every individual and every Government has an obligation to take a stand against these evils.

I ask the Minister: what part will Her Majesty’s Government play in the Vienna Forum, and what concrete action will be taken as a result to protect the victims, prosecute the traffickers and prevent illegal trade in people? Will the Government ensure that civil society organisations such as Stop the Traffik will play a key and integrated part both in this initiative and in their own work, and that the experiences of young people, in particular, will inform how human trafficking is tackled?

The input of young people is crucial because the International Labour Organisation estimates that there are at least 5.7 million children in forced and bonded labour; 300,000 forcibly recruited into armed conflict; and 1.8 million in prostitution and pornography. These are just some of the horrible situations into which over 1 million children around the world are trafficked every year. Every 30 seconds while we are debating here this afternoon, another child is forced or tricked into slavery: the 25,000 children trafficked into the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, the girls trafficked into prostitution in Thailand, the children trafficked into slave labour in India and the 70,000 boys forced to become child soldiers in Burma are just a fraction of the indescribable toll of man-made suffering.

But individual stories speak more eloquently than statistics. Last Wednesday I was in the Nuba Mountains in Sudan talking to a young man who had just escaped from 20 years of slavery. He still bears the scars—some visible, such as the slash on his skull and the amputated finger; others invisible, such as the taunts and not being allowed to go with other children in the family to the school or the mosque. He is just one of thousands of African men, women and children abducted by Arab northerners in Sudan in their war against the Africans of the south and the marginalised areas.

Thousands are still missing. Will Her Majesty’s Government pressure Khartoum to accept responsibility for the slavery it is known to have promoted and to take all appropriate measures to identify, free and return to their homes all who have suffered enslavement at their hands?

A few months ago I was talking to young people in northern Uganda who had suffered indescribable horrors after capture by the LRA. Tortured and brutalised, they were forced to kill each other and to fight against the Ugandan Army and their own people. I will never forget speaking to a young teenage girl who was forced to kill another child with a panga knife and drink his blood—she still has nightmares—or a young teenage boy forced to cut another boy to pieces and who learnt that, after he escaped, the LRA killed his father in reprisal. The testimonies from young people who have suffered trafficking and enslavement are legion.

One aspect of our everyday lives that is affected is chocolate. Nearly half the chocolate we eat in this country comes from Cote d’Ivoire in west Africa; the ILO estimates that over 200,000 children are trapped in forced labour on cocoa plantations there. Many of these have been trafficked in from neighbouring countries such as Mali, imprisoned, tortured and forced to pick and carry cocoa beans all day, every day. The major chocolate companies do not deny this and cannot guarantee that the products they profit from have not been made by trafficked child slaves. This is completely unacceptable. The cocoa industry must implement Stop the Traffik’s “traffic-free chocolate” pledge. It must pledge transparency in its supply chains, no tolerance towards any child labour, better pricing for producers and rehabilitation of children rescued from such dire situations. Will the Government urge leading organisations in the cocoa industry to fulfil the obligations they made to eliminate the worst forms of child labour from their supply chains and to implement farm-level certification and independent inspections to verify this?

However, these are not just distant problems; they are happening right here, right now, on our own doorsteps. Last year the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre conducted a scoping project on child trafficking in the United Kingdom, identifying 330 children from 44 countries who were probable victims of trafficking. They were brought by air, sea and rail into heinous work such as cannabis cultivation, benefit fraud and forced begging. Yet, despite such reports, the full extent of human trafficking in our own country remains unknown. Will the Government support my efforts to establish a Royal Commission to investigate modern-day slavery and to propose means for its abolition?

I welcome the Government’s announcement last week that they will accelerate the implementation and the ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, but will they publish a schedule for implementation and a date for ratification? I also welcome the Government’s announcement that they will review their reservation to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Will the Government act promptly to remove this reservation which denies child victims of trafficking their basic rights?

Why do the Government refuse to appoint an anti-trafficking national rapporteur, who would have the power to collect information, investigate cases, report to the Government and make recommendations? This is a recommendation of the Council of Europe and is already successful, for example, in the Netherlands. Establishing such a post would provide more resources, a higher profile and greater efficiency than the current ad hoc inter-departmental ministerial group, whose members could not even combine their diaries to meet in the last quarter of last year.

I commend the work of campaigns such as Stop the Traffik, which are working with over 900 partners in 50 countries to raise awareness, advocacy and resources for the fight against human trafficking. They are working with grassroots organisations to remove the root causes, including some of the millennium development goals such as poverty, lack of education and gender inequality. Will the Government consistently insert anti-trafficking strategies into poverty reduction programmes such as the multilateral poverty reduction strategy and their bilateral country assistance plans? Will they also raise awareness of the links between the millennium development goals and human trafficking?

The Government can also do more to tackle trafficking in Europe. Thousands of young women are being trafficked from the former Soviet Union to the United Kingdom, where they are repeatedly raped whilst in sexual enslavement in many brothels in our towns and cities. I commend the work of local community action groups such as Croydon Community Against Trafficking, which is working with local newspapers, police officers and councillors to rid its town of modern-day slavery. But action is also needed at regional and national levels. Will the Government support current moves to establish a Europe-wide single number hotline for victims of human trafficking, connected to existing national services in each country?

I have tried to outline some policies that could bring an end to human trafficking and the modern-day slave trade. These could be implemented both by this Government and by others at the Vienna Forum. I hope that all the questions I have raised will be answered and not ignored, as happened to some in last week’s debate on human trafficking in the other place. Only if the Government take the kinds of initiatives identified by organisations such as Stop the Traffik will there be any hope of stopping the trafficking and enslavement of human beings.

I fervently hope that, following the year in which we celebrated the achievements of William Wilberforce and his co-abolitionists, this year will not be a year of condemnation of our failure to do all we can to achieve the goal for which they have strived, so far in vain: the abolition of the slave trade and all forms of human trafficking.

I rise first and foremost to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for instigating this vitally important debate. But, well beyond the debate, I would like to put on record my profoundest gratitude for the years of dedicated work that she personally has placed at the service of those who are being trafficked in the modern slave trade. She is a real heroine. I have not had the opportunity to say this before and I really thank her on behalf of everyone.

I and my colleagues in the European Parliament have also been tackling this heinous crime. We have been trying to tackle it at source because the enlargement process of the European Union has brought trafficking not only onto our doorstep but right inside the house. It is a shameful thing to have to confess to noble Lords today that one of the new members of the European Union—Bulgaria—only outlawed human trafficking just before entering the European Union. We did have a greater success with Romania, which outlawed it considerably earlier, but it has made us investigate much more closely legal provisions to block trafficking. I am very happy to say that, after negotiations with the head of the Duma, Russia has now outlawed trafficking. Implementation of the law is the next step—but if you do not have the law in place you have nothing to hang on to at all.

Therefore I believe profoundly, and would like to put on record again, that tackling this problem in the source countries may be the only real solution. Getting the right laws in place and training the police is important. That is why Her Majesty’s Government nominate police to go abroad to those countries where the traffickers are using people as commodities for sale. Ultimately, if we can possibly trap at the beginning the perpetrators of this terrible crime, we will save so much human misery it is hardly true.

This means that we will have to work hard on capacity building, institution building, the rule of law and strengthening democracy. The heart of democracy is human rights and human dignity; slavery is the antithesis of human dignity and human rights. On top of that we must work in the field of family and public health; mother/child healthcare is a very strong tool in this. Very often the young are trafficked because they are the easiest to transport and move around, and they raise the most money. They can be trafficked for involuntary organ transplants, for example. You can make half-a-million dollars if you have quite a small child and you can plunder the entirety of its body.

So it is very important to think about the rule of law, training the police, the magistrates and the judges and getting Parliament behind the whole situation positively and powerfully. We managed to stop many thousands of children and young people being trafficked from Romania by dint of getting the Government, the president and the Parliament not only to pass the right laws but to believe profoundly that they had to protect their people and not have them used as commodities.

When you look at it on the ground you will see that the trafficking springs up locally; then these clusters of traffickers group nationally; then the international traffickers move in, and after that you have almost no defence at all. So you have to pin this down at the very beginning.

I have been working hard with my colleagues in the European Parliament and through a charitable effort we established the Children’s High Level Group with J K Rowling—the voice of the children globally. We beg and hope that Her Majesty’s Government will think beyond our shores. They could assist not only by dealing with the problems of trafficked people here but by investing in some of the key countries on our doorstep and inside the Union where this crime is particularly prevalent.

I congratulate the noble Baroness once more and look forward to her further work.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for calling this very important debate today on the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking which is taking place in Vienna next month. I was pleased to be invited to launch this very important initiative in the House of Lords in March last year with Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director, Julia Ormond, the United Nations goodwill ambassador and our Minister, Vernon Coaker, who is responsible for human trafficking issues at the Home Office and who has helped us enormously over the past months.

The Vienna forum is calling for action to raise awareness and to facilitate co-operation and partnerships among the various stakeholders. The forum will allow for an open environment to enable all parties involved to take concrete steps to fight human trafficking within their spheres of action. It will be a catalyst for solution-seeking ideas and will address the overriding themes of human trafficking. Vulnerability—why does human trafficking happen? Impact—the human and social consequences of human trafficking. Action—innovative approaches to solving complex problems.

Human trafficking is a crime that shames us all. It is a booming international trade making billions of pounds and is the third largest industry next to arms and drugs. The World Bank will confirm my figures on that. In the other place, Mr Steen asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department,

“how much money has been confiscated from criminals convicted of trafficking people in the UK in each of the last three years”.

Earlier this week, the Minister, Mr. Coaker, answered:

“The total value of confiscation orders and cash forfeiture orders made in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland over the last three years against criminals involved in people trafficking is set out in the table”.—[Official Report, Commons; 22/1/08; col. 1866W.]

The figures are quite low but wait until you get to the last one. I have rounded the figures up. In 2004-05, the value was £400,000; in 2005-06, it was £1 million; in 2006-07, it was £2,500,000.

Criminals profit while satisfying consumer demand. That is why we should ratify the Council of Europe’s Convention against Human Trafficking and take a lead. Great Britain is a destination country which, I am ashamed to say, is one of the highest receivers of victims. Many victims are children, who are being robbed of their dignity and freedom. Trafficked victims are vulnerable to poverty and exploited by traffickers, who use force and deception to trap their prey. Victims include young girls sold by their families; children drugged and forced to fight as soldiers; men bonded and chained in labour mines and farms; women enslaved in quarries and households; women and girls trapped in the sex trade; and boys forced to fish in dangerous waters. These human beings are being forced to do what others would never freely do and are paid virtually nothing for their pains. They are used like disposable products for commercial gain. I repeat, they are disposable products—the traffickers have no feelings about human beings. I ask the Government to send to the forum a delegation of the highest level, led by a Cabinet Minister.

Finally, let me quote my friend and colleague Melanne Verveer, co-founder and chair of Vital Voices Global Partnership. She said:

“Governments, businesses, NGOs and citizens everywhere have a responsibility to work together to address this modern-day slavery. The new initiative will be critical to progress in combating this global challenge. We urge everyone to join the 21st century anti-trafficking movement”.

I am looking forward to being with my colleagues from the Government in Vienna. I will be attending as a member of the Women's Leadership Council and in my capacity as a board member of Vital Voices Global Partnership.

I, too, pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for sponsoring this debate. Her activities in combating contemporary slavery are well known and well-documented. To her fine words, she has added fine actions, which is never a simple or easy thing to achieve.

It is estimated that as many as three-quarters of a million people are being illegally trafficked across international borders every year. Global awareness of that evil trade is, I am pleased to say, growing, but the level of knowledge remains very low, which increases the vulnerability of potential victims.

All too often it is assumed that human trafficking primarily involves vulnerable women or girls from poor countries being duped into coming to developed countries such as the UK, and then having their passport taken away while they are forced, often by threats or the actual use of physical violence, to work as prostitutes. That assumption is wrong on two counts. First, although the plight of women or girls trafficked for sexual purposes is dreadful, it is not the case that such women constitute a majority of victims. Secondly, it is by no means only in the developed world that vulnerable people are coerced into activities that amount to no less than modern-day slavery. The International Labour Organisation, the UN agency charged with addressing labour standards, employment and social protection issues, estimates that at any time more than 12 million people are in forced labour, bonded labour or sexual servitude—there are many forms of this. As the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, said, the one thing that these people have in common is that they are human beings, coerced into a situation that they would never voluntarily have entered into.

These crimes are widespread, affecting people across many countries, yet here in the UK there is no shortage of nefarious activity involving lives from which people seemingly have no escape. If a reminder was required of what slavery means in Britain in 2008, it has been provided, with perhaps uncanny timing, by the front page of tonight’s London Evening Standard under the banner headline, “Police Free the London Child Slaves”. If we read that, we see that “slave” children who were smuggled into Britain by traffickers and forced to steal and beg on the streets of London have been freed. Police raided a string of houses, each of which held up to 10 children, to seize traffickers whose trade is said to be worth up to £1 billion every year. More than 20 people were arrested as officers freed the children, who had been sold to Romanian people-smuggling gangs and forced into a life of crime. Police estimate that each child is worth as much as £100,000 a year to the gangs, and the Romanian authorities estimate that up to 2,000 Romanian children have been smuggled into Britain to operate as modern-day Oliver Twists.

The Metropolitan Police has its own dedicated team to tackle human trafficking, of course, and the ACPO-led UK Human Trafficking Centre in Sheffield further demonstrates the efforts that are being made to tackle these crimes. The operation that is reported in the paper today involved the Met working closely with its Romanian counterparts, which is a welcome development. For too long this country was not able to work as effectively as it might have done with other European countries because the Government had not signed the Council of Europe convention against trafficking. Last year, they did sign up to it, although as yet it has not been ratified. Many EU member states will ratify it and bring it into force next month. I hope that the Minister will clarify the Government’s position and set out their intentions, which I also hope will include a date for ratification.

As I said, awareness of human trafficking is increasing. Last year, the Church of Scotland, in marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, introduced a campaign pack on tackling human trafficking and called on the Government to ratify and act on the convention. The church had been urged to campaign on the issue by its missionary partners around the world. When asked what one issue they thought the Church of Scotland should take up in order to improve the lives of people in their countries, the most common response was combating human trafficking.

This is not, of course, an issue that can be fought in any one country, which is why the UN established the Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, or GIFT, in March last year. The Vienna forum next month will be the first opportunity to review GIFT’s aims and to begin to co-ordinate activity to counter the increase in human trafficking. I note from the forum’s programme that over three days there are to be more than 20 sessions on topics as varied as criminal justice responses, the roles of employers’ organisations and trade unions, repatriation and reintegration of victims, supply chain management and the role of the media. I hope that the Government’s representatives in Vienna will return with a list of actions on which to follow up, so that the pernicious activities of human traffickers can be reduced and eventually, I hope, eliminated.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has brought an extremely important subject before us today and I join my voice with those of earlier speakers who expressed their concern and horror at the worldwide extent of the abominable practice of human trafficking, particularly the trafficking of women and children. The ending of this appalling trade in people, which the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, rightly described as modern slavery, should be the goal of every democratic country, although it will be achieved only through collaboration with other like-minded states.

One has only to recall the bare statistics. US authorities estimated in 2005 that 800,000 people worldwide were trafficked every year and that the annual revenue from that trafficking amounted to about $9.5 billion. The market in the UK this year is estimated to be worth about £1 billion, rather more than a quarter of which is accounted for by the market in sexual exploitation. Tonight’s news, brought to us by the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, emphasises the importance and size of this trade and the power of the people who run it. No doubt many powerful people will resist the end of this lucrative trade. We will have to fight them as well as fight for the right actions on behalf of our Government.

In 2003, some 4,000 people were trafficked into the UK for the purposes of prostitution. Whereas 10 years ago some 15 per cent of women prostitutes were from abroad, now only 15 per cent are of domestic origin. Women and children constitute a large proportion of those trafficked, many of them coming from some of the poorest countries in the world—in many cases countries benefiting from more or less generous funding from the United Nations and/or other donor nations, including the UK. The Question of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, is directed to actions which the UK Government could take to help eliminate this terrible modern form of slavery.

It is a matter of concern that the Government have only just committed themselves to the ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. Clearly, where the better management of border controls is involved, it is of the greatest importance to maximise co-operation, not only between EU member states but also with other states within our continent. Will the Government commit themselves to working effectively with other European states in order to monitor this trade, track the traffickers, intercept their deliveries and bring them to justice? Without that collaboration, we will not get very far at the European level.

Will the Government also improve services for trafficked adults and, particularly, children who have escaped their so-called employers? Adoption of services for these victims is another requirement of the convention. In particular, do the Government now accept the need to appoint guardians of “rescued” trafficked children? After all, the EU reception direction, the EC convention and UNICEF guidelines all propose this as an essential part of the care for trafficked children.

My second area of inquiry is in relation to the interrelationship, if any, between the fact that many trafficked persons come from the poorest countries and that these are the same countries which receive large subventions from the UK or other states. It may be asking too much to require these countries to close their borders to the “export” of human beings by the traffickers. Furthermore, some of the destination countries are themselves among the poorest countries on the globe. Is there any pressure we can bring to bear, at least on those countries not at war, to persuade or assist their governments to begin to institute effective control against traffickers?

Finally, will the Government be able to put forward proposals at Vienna which might increase determined, world-wide collaboration among the richer nations directed towards the ending of this terrible practice? The countries of the developed world form a major market for the men, women and children who are victims of this terrible trade. Is it not the duty of “consumer” countries to do their best, both inside and outside their own boundaries, to end this modern slavery?

I join in the thanks already expressed to my noble friend Lady Cox, not only for introducing this debate but for all the tremendous work she has been doing over the years. I believe that Her Majesty’s Government should be congratulated on what they have done so far about trafficking into Britain. More is needed, of course, and I do have some questions to put. When will the Government ratify the UN protocol on the trafficking of children, which was signed as long ago as 2000? Will they make any necessary legal changes using the current Children and Young Persons Bill? Further, will they ratify the Council of Europe convention protecting children and adults against sexual exploitation and abuse? Will they remove their reservation on nationality and immigration from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child?

Will they study the cases of Paul Gadd and Paul Bower, and close the three-day loophole allowing British registered sex offenders to make short visits overseas without notification? Will they seek to make extradition treaties with foreign countries, especially in south-east Asia, wherever these do not now exist? Will they reconvene the expert working group on information and intelligence concerning paedophiles and sex tourism? Will they ensure that they have high-level representation at the UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, taking place in Vienna next month?

Turning to domestic matters, can they give preliminary details about Operation Pentameter 2? That is designed to free those forced into prostitution and to arrest traffickers and pimps. I hope that may be possible. Are they satisfied that there are now sufficient safe houses to accommodate trafficked persons once they have been freed? Such houses are necessary in most parts of Britain. Can they report progress in identifying trafficked children at ports of entry and in preventing such children disappearing from the care of social services?

Finally, like my noble friend Lady Cox, who mentioned this, will they consider appointing a rapporteur on human trafficking, reporting to Parliament, as well as, or instead of, the existing ministerial working group? People who have been trafficked deserve respect and care, and do not deserve to be treated as illegal migrants. I hope that my questions have illustrated how much more there is to be done. It is of paramount importance that all agencies involved work closely together. Surely that is something that only the Government are capable of organising.

I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on securing this debate. It seeks to highlight the problem of this vile trade. I feel very strongly about the subject but, in view of the constraints of time, I am not able to talk about this abhorrent practice in great detail.

I am horrified at what is described as modern-day slavery. Human trafficking involves deception, intimidation, coercion and exploitation. Criminality is at the centre of this trade. Estimates suggest that the global trade now exceeds £9.5 billion and around 80 per cent of those involved are women, of whom about half are minors. The Government have estimated that more than 4,000 women are being trafficked into this country for sexual exploitation. The United Nations has estimated that up to 2 million women and children are trafficked across international borders every year. A recent UNICEF report found that, in an 18-month period, 330 children were believed to have been trafficked into the United Kingdom and that, of these, 183 went missing from the care of social services. That is appalling and shameful. Yet, in 2005, only 166 people were sentenced to immediate custody under the variety of offences that constitute people trafficking. We need to ensure that more people are detected and convicted of this disgusting behaviour. Those involved need to be taught that they will not be able to get away with their crimes.

I am pleased to note that the Government have indicated that they will ratify the Council of Europe convention during the coming year. I should be most grateful if the Minister would confirm that this will be included in legislation during the current Session, so that the actual ratification can take place by the end of the year. It would also be helpful if the Minister would confirm that, from the moment the convention is ratified, the Government will abide by all the requirements contained in it.

A simpler approach might include implementing separate interviews for women and children travelling into this country with people who are not family members. That has been suggested by my party but it has not been well received by the Government. I should be grateful if the Minister could explain what action the Government are taking to increase the practical co-operation between national authorities to tackle human trafficking. I support the proposals for the establishment of a border police force, which would be able to focus more consistently, effectively making Operation Pentameter a permanent operation.

Human trafficking should be regarded as a mainstream police priority. At present, there are areas where nothing effective is done by the police. I want to see more people prosecuted and convicted, thereby sending out a signal that we mean business in tackling human trafficking. We need to be able to help victims. I would like to see an increase in the number of safe houses, maximising the number of places available to victims in safe accommodation and ensuring that capacity is used efficiently. Those under 18 years of age are excluded from accessing the POPPY project’s facilities, which should be changed. Perhaps a helpline for victims would help promulgate information for those who have suffered or are suffering. I hope that we will have another chance to hear from the Minister after the Vienna forum, and that real progress will at last be made.

There is abuse also of workers who enter this country legally or illegally. It is imperative that the activities of rogue gangmasters are controlled. Will the Minister comment on that?

I was brought up in Africa, which has been ravaged by the slave trade, and appreciate all the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, about that continent.

Although there was a vote at the end of the debate on this subject in another place, it displayed general agreement between the parties and a lot of common ground, as exemplified by what has been said here today. I suggest that the best way of maintaining and improving the co-operation that already exists is for regular progress reports to be made on the implementation of the Government’s action plan, so that questions such as those that we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, would not need to be asked in a gathering of this kind, but would automatically be available to all your Lordships and the public.

I join the noble Lord, Lord Watson, in congratulating the police on the success of the operation reported in the Evening Standard, which stated that it was the first in a series of operations in combating trafficking. As my noble friend Lady Nicholson said, we ought to deal with problems in the countries of origin as well as at home. I congratulate her on her work in bringing the standards of new members of the European Union up to the level of all the rest. We should consider, if we do not do so already, appointing airline liaison officers in Bucharest, for example—even though Romania is part of the European Union—because that has proved effective in other places from which illegal activities have stemmed in the past.

The debate has focused on the Vienna forum on the UN Global Initiative. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and others mentioned the briefing that we received from Stop the Traffik. The Minister in another place, Mr Vernon Coaker, referred to it in complimentary terms, but did not say what he thought of its proposals in detail. We look forward to learning what the Government think of them today.

The interdepartmental ministerial group on human trafficking has been referred to several times. I understand that it has not met for several months and therefore is not contributing anything. Stop the Traffik proposes that it be replaced by a national rapporteur on human trafficking, who it suggests would have more time, resources, profile and power to assist in the implementation of the UK’s action plan. I like the idea of an official with this title co-ordinating and prompting government departments and others whose authority is needed and reporting on progress. The rapporteur should not have executive power, as Stop the Traffik suggests, but would have great persuasive influence across the board, as does the Children’s Commissioner, for instance, in a related field. There are other constitutional precedents for the appointment of tsars with cross-departmental responsibilities.

Mr Dismore mentioned in another place a letter that he had received from the Minister announcing the review of our reservation on the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has also been referred to today. We particularly welcome this concession, recalling that we argued during the passage the UK Borders Bill that the convention should apply to the BIA except where removal is being implemented. It might well be argued that sending a child back to, say, Iraq or the DRC was not in that child’s best interests, but the main problem we have always had is the treatment of children in detention, where the Government say they already comply with the CRC. If that is true, I cannot imagine what possible objection there could be to applying the convention to all the activities of the BIA except those immediately concerned with removal.

In the debate in another place, my right honourable friend the Member for Eastleigh particularly highlighted the problem of trafficked children being used as domestic slaves, and the disappearance of children from local authority care has been mentioned today. That is one of the areas in which it is important to identify migrants as victims of crime and as potential witnesses. We ask how the inherent difference of approach between the police, who are anxious to obtain evidence against traffickers, and the BIA, whose remit is to enforce immigration control, can be best resolved.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, is a doughty fighter for those who are trafficked, and I am glad that she has been able to generate this debate again today. It gives us an opportunity to acknowledge her experience, authority and conviction on this matter. I also wish to thank Stop the Traffik because it has generated two debates—one in the House of Commons and one today in the House of Lords—which are designed to draw attention to the Vienna conference.

First, much has been said about the Vienna conference—the questions that I would have asked have probably been put—but it is important that the Minister should let us know who is attending on behalf of the Government so that we can see the level at which interest is being taken. How will the Government let us know what comes out of the conference? What does the Minister hope the conference will achieve?

Secondly, the debate today has reminded us that this country is a signatory to the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, but we still have not ratified it. I know that the Home Office decided earlier this month to “accelerate” doing so, but it is hardly the foot down in the fast lane to say that it will not be done until the end of the year. Every other European country appears to have managed to get on with it, apparently without trouble, and we are still pussyfooting around waiting for “necessary legislative and procedural changes” to bring it about. Can the Minister confirm what has already been asked about the legislative programme? Can he confirm that legislation will be passed in this Session?

Thirdly—and this is by far the most important aspect—the debate has underlined once again the sickening nature of this terrible affront to humanity. It would be easier perhaps, but still not let us off the hook, if we were able to say with hand on heart, “This awful thing did not happen here”. But as other noble Lords have pointed out today, we cannot do that. We are a receiving country of countless men, women and children who are abducted from their homes or persuaded to leave on the grounds that there are good jobs on offer. They arrive illegally through our porous borders and then find themselves bound to the traffickers, often being forced into debt bondage or into the sex trade, kept in appalling conditions and, because of their illegal status, unable or too frightened to turn to anyone in authority.

As others have said, we are not alone; this is a world-wide problem. It is a tragedy for the millions of people caught up in the trade which, as the Guardian recently reported, is estimated to be worth—figures have been bandied around today and this is another one—in the region of $44 billion globally. The United Nations estimates that up to 27 million people are currently held in slavery, the majority of whom are Asian women. It is an appalling situation.

Let me concentrate for a minute on the situation in this country. It is not as if nothing is being done to address the problem—it is—but can the Minister tell us whether the Government would consider introducing separate interviews for women and children travelling into this country? They have not done so, but this would identify the children who are being brought in illegally and against their will. Furthermore, why did the conviction rate for trafficking offences under the Sexual Offences Act actually fall by 40 per cent between 2006 and 2007? However, we know about the police operations taking place in the form of Pentameter 1 and 2, and it is good news that the London police have today made further moves in this respect.

In closing, I want briefly to touch on the POPPY project, which is a fantastic but underused resource. It is almost incomprehensible that the most vulnerable victims of trafficking, children, are excluded from access to it. I would like to ask the Minister whether he will look again at the Home Office’s own criteria which stipulate that people under the age of 18 should not have access to this project. Social services can deal with many of the problems associated with children, but they often need expert help. It is ridiculous to deny people under the age of 18 access to this resource, one that is funded by the Government. We might as well make proper use of it.

There is an enormous amount to be done. We have had great contributions from all those who have participated in the debate. For my part, I hope that the convention in Vienna is not only a success, but provides some really purposeful proposals for the future.

I begin by joining in the thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for raising this issue, and indeed I have great admiration for all her work in this area. I thank also other noble Lords for their contributions, which have reflected clearly the abhorrence all of us have for this foul practice. I share that deep abhorrence. It is a modern form of slavery, as has been said. As a Government I think that we have a good story to tell, and that is not least because of the engagement and involvement of a number of noble Lords which have helped to make things move forward. However, there is a long way to go in some areas, and having noted the number of questions put to me in the debate—the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, had 18, and the average of each noble Lord who spoke was eight or nine—there is merit in making more regular progress reports in some form. I am not sure how we can do that, but I will talk to officials and see if there is a way. I do not know how easily it can be done, and I should take care because I am always getting into trouble for saying that I will do things without knowing quite how to achieve them.

I should say, as an admiral, that the Royal Navy was a huge force for good in suppressing the slave trade. We lost something like 17,000 men, mainly from sickness, in that task. The period of 35 to 40 years in which the navy was engaged in that effort is something we should be proud of. It is not directly applicable to this debate, but I have to get a plug in for the Navy in some way.

There is no doubt that human trafficking is a very evil practice. It is perpetrated for profit by organised criminals across the world who have absolutely no regard for victims or society as a whole. It is a multi-faceted phenomenon, one that knows no borders and occurs both within nations and across international boundaries. As many speakers have emphasised today, trafficking needs to be fought on many fronts, and the key to a successful response is effective collaboration and partnership working. I believe that the Government have embraced this approach, and an important part of that is an active involvement with our international partners.

That brings me to the UN Vienna forum, which was set up by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to co-ordinate the global fight against human trafficking and build on the platform provided by the Palermo protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, although it focused particularly on women and children. This is the arena in which we can address many of the proposals that have been raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Cox, Lady Nicholson, Lady Thomas, and others. The United Kingdom has supported the UN initiative from the outset, the formal launch having taken place in London on 26 March last year and at which my honourable friend Vernon Coaker spoke on behalf of the Government. Vital Voices, through my noble friend Lady Goudie, arranged the event, and we are indebted to my noble friend for all her hard work in this sphere.

The Vienna forum will bring together representatives from member states, the United Nations and other international organisations, the business community, academia and non-governmental organisations with the objective of raising awareness and facilitating the co-operation between stakeholders that a number of us have talked about and realise is so important. The United Kingdom will be an active participant at the event. My honourable friend Vernon Coaker intends to attend the opening meeting to make a statement about the United Kingdom’s approach to tackling human trafficking.

The United Kingdom delegation will include representatives from the UK Human Trafficking Centre, the Serious Organised Crime Agency, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Border and Immigration Agency as well as officials from the Foreign Office and the Home Office. The UK Human Trafficking Centre has been asked specifically to chair the “From Protection to Persecution” session at the forum and give a presentation on UK Operations Pentameter and Pentameter 2, which speakers have already mentioned. The UK representatives will also speak on the international projects in which we are currently engaged in the special event called “International Co-operation: Identifying and Overcoming the Problem”.

The UK Government have a comprehensive end-to-end strategy in place to tackle human trafficking, and have made considerable progress in that area with the publication of the UK action plan in March 2007 and, on the same day, our signing of the Council of Europe Convention. The action plan pulls together existing work and sets out future action. It applies to all forms of human trafficking and sets out proposals in the key areas of prevention: enforcement and prosecution, protection and assistance to adult victims and child trafficking. Other recent progress includes the introduction of comprehensive anti-trafficking laws, resulting in a number of successful convictions.

We established the Serious Organised Crime Agency in 2006, which has tackling human trafficking as one of its top priorities and is now also supported by a new police-led multi-agency UK Human Trafficking Centre, which became operational in October 2006.

We are also continuing to work with the POPPY project, which has been mentioned, to provide secure support and accommodation to adult female victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation. In 2006 the first of our major national anti-trafficking operations took place. Operation Pentameter 1 was a great success. We established the UK Human Trafficking Centre after that to support, develop and co-ordinate our response. We recovered 88 victims, of whom 12 were children. That shows the sort of success that is possible. Operation Pentameter 2 was launched in October 2007 and is currently ongoing. It is another catalyst designed to encourage proactive policing, which some noble Lords touched on. That needs to be done. It is an illustrative process of teaching people how they need to approach this issue, and showing that it is core police business.

Human trafficking does not always involve immigration issues. However, it always involves serious criminality including rape, false imprisonment and often violence. It is a very serious crime. We have had 70 convictions to date—and I would like there to be more—for trafficking for sex and exploitation under the Sexual Offenders Act 2003, resulting in sentences between two and nine years on specific counts, while convictions for several counts have resulted in sentences of up to 21 years—and quite right and proper too.

Intelligence from Pentameter 2 is already further developing our understanding of the nature and scale of trafficking across the UK. Part of the problem is that we do not really understand that, and we really must. Following the conclusion of the operation, the UK Human Trafficking Centre in conjunction with the Serious Organised Crime Agency will produce an updated strategic assessment of human trafficking in the UK, which will help us improve upon estimates in previous research and will further enable us to respond to the reality rather than the perception—and I fear that the reality is probably worse.

A significant number of victims have been identified already—I cannot talk about that in detail; the situation is ongoing—and are receiving support as appropriate. It is not possible yet to give exact numbers because we are still in the middle of this operation. However, more than 542 premises have been visited. A large percentage of them has been residential, which shows just how hidden the crime is—it could be taking place in the house next door—which is a very worrying aspect of it. In excess of £400,000 has already been seized in cash, with a number of money-laundering investigations taking place and a number of restraint orders instituted. I believe that we will find much more money, because a lot of it is involved.

The G6 initiative is linked to Pentameter 2 and is another example of this Government’s commitment to working in collaboration with international partners. The initiative is led by the United Kingdom and Poland, and is running from July 2007 until July of this year. The UK proposed that G6 countries should undertake a period of joint operational activity along the lines of Operation Pentameter. A number of noble Lords asked whether there is some way of doing this. We are looking specifically at that to see what we can do.

A number of activities and meetings have now taken place, with the United Kingdom, Poland, Italy, the Netherlands and Ireland committed to this project, supported by Europol, Interpol and Eurojust. The project involves a number of strands of activity. It looks at how traffickers can be tackled more effectively and how best practice can be shared among the participating states. It looks also at whether there is any benefit in undertaking joint awareness projects, which there probably is.

Further European engagement took place at the international seminar on the Council of Europe convention against trafficking in December. The seminar was jointly hosted by the Home Office and the Council of Europe. It discussed the development of policy and sought to identify the most effective responses to all elements of anti-trafficking work. There were around 80 participants, with more than 10 member states invited as well as a large number of United Kingdom stakeholders. We greatly value the participation and input of such stakeholders as part of our collaborative approach—a number of noble Lords mentioned the importance of collaboration, which I re-emphasise—and we have sought to involve them also through our ministerial non-government organisation group.

Your Lordships will be aware that the Home Secretary announced on Monday the Government’s intention to accelerate plans to ratify the Council of Europe convention. We have worked hard and consulted widely since signing it. For example, we have piloted a model of victim identification within the Pentameter 2 operation, identified gaps in compliance, and developed models of victim support. There is much still to do, but our progress means that we now believe that we can make the necessary legislative and procedural changes to achieve ratification later this year. However, we can succeed only with the full support of both Houses, because legislation is involved, and colleagues in other parts of the United Kingdom.

The Home Secretary also announced on Monday the Government’s intention to review the UK’s immigration reservation to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The review will explore all the options open to the Government and will report early in the spring. However, it should be noted that our reservation has no effect on how victims of trafficking are treated while they are in this country: their protection and safety already become the responsibility of local authorities within our child protection legislation.

We have worked with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to develop an advice and information line for social carers and other professionals to help them identify and support trafficked children. The advice line went live in October last year, and multi-agency guidance was published in December to provide comprehensive information to all front-line professionals on the identification of victims and the actions required.

Several noble Lords have mentioned the special rapporteur and the role that such a person might have in identifying the victims of trafficking at an early stage, so that they are separated from the responsibility of the BIA and placed in the care of local authorities. I hope that the Minister will have time to mention that important matter before he sits down.

I shall try to make sure that I get to that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, spoke of urging companies to ensure that they comply with the benefits of not proceeding with slavery. We strongly support that responsible business behaviour. International business has an important contribution to make, but we promote adherence to OECD guidelines on multinational enterprise. NGOs and trade unions can raise, and have, raised complaints against companies. Under OECD mechanisms, we are investigating complaints and producing conclusions as necessary to try to make a move forward in that area.

Will DfID commit to the mainstreaming of anti-trafficking strategies? They are committed to addressing the underlying problems that make poor people vulnerable to trafficking, and that includes helping to build states that work for poor people. We are addressing those issues by supporting nationally developed poverty-reduction programmes.

There was mention of the possibility of a Royal Commission. This is the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. There is already extensive parliamentary and public scrutiny of action in this area, and there are regular debates. The Joint Committee on Human Rights undertook an inquiry into the Government’s efforts, and therefore we do not believe that a Royal Commission is necessary.

On the EU anti-trafficking hotline, we fully recognise the need for transnational work. However, we foresee some real difficulties with the hotline, including issues relating to management and dissemination of information.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, referred to Romanian child trafficking. The Metropolitan Police work very closely with the Romanians and we have two Romanian police officers working with the Metropolitan Police at the moment.

I have a number of questions still to answer, including one about the rapporteur to which there is a rather long, one-page answer. Perhaps I may write to noble Lords on the issues raised. I hope I have given some oversight. There is still much to do but I would not want the Committee to be in any doubt about our resolve to curb this absolutely loathsome traffic. I believe that those involved will be identified; we will track them down and they will suffer the full penalty of the law. That people should treat their fellow human beings in this way in the 21st century is very depressing. We intend that the culprits should have nowhere to hide. We are intent on getting them and rescuing and looking after those involved. I apologise for being over long.

The Committee adjourned at 6.02 pm.