Skip to main content

People Trafficking

Volume 725: debated on Monday 7 March 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures are in place at King’s Cross St Pancras International station to prevent children being trafficked into the United Kingdom.

My Lords, all passengers arriving at King’s Cross St Pancras have been cleared for immigration purposes at juxtaposed controls in France and Belgium. The primary function of officers at St Pancras is to undertake checks for prohibited goods and restricted items. If there was any suspicion that a child arriving at St Pancras was at risk, the UKBA would refer to the appropriate authorities.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that that means that a 12 year-old child can travel from Europe to St Pancras without any checks at all on their safety when they get here? Would he not agree that there ought to be a specialist child protection team at St Pancras to ensure that children trafficked into the UK are not being brought in and then used for sexual exploitation and benefit fraud?

My Lords, there is no need for a specific team at St Pancras as the noble Baroness suggests, because the necessary checks are carried out in France and Belgium by specially trained UKBA officials. Obviously, a child travelling on their own would arouse some suspicion and attention from officials, who are very likely to intercept them and satisfy themselves that everything is in order.

My Lords, I think that the Minister is unduly optimistic about the way in which children come into this country. I declare an interest as the co-chairman of the All-Party Group on Human Trafficking. Is he aware that the majority of children trafficked into this country are never actually identified at all? Some are identified and go into local authority care, but very large numbers of missing children are not identified by local authorities as trafficked.

My Lords, I am certainly not unduly optimistic, and I was far more apprehensive about taking this Question than the previous Question. Trafficking is a hidden crime and, for that reason, is difficult to measure and detect. It is usually for sexual exploitation, labour exploitation or domestic servitude. Some 1,048 individuals were referred to the UK’s human trafficking victim identification and support framework, the national referral mechanism, from 1 April 2009 to 30 September 2010. Those are the ones whom we know about because they have been referred, so to an extent the noble and learned Baroness is quite right—this is a serious problem.

My Lords, is it not correct that the European convention on human trafficking was amended at the end of last year and that the United Kingdom has decided not to sign up to that amendment? Would it not be right now, after what the Minister has said further to what we know about human trafficking, for the Government to sign up to that? The amendment would ensure tougher border controls, tougher recovery of money across borders and a longer time for victims to be taken care of. Will the Minister please take this back since the UK is, through its Government, one of the two countries that has not signed up?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is experiencing exactly the same difficulties as I did when researching this. There is the convention and there is the directive. We are confident that the UK is compliant with the Council of Europe trafficking convention, an issue that is already in place. The noble Baroness is referring to the EU trafficking directive. We are looking closely at that directive’s text and considering its merits. If we conclude that opting in to the directive would benefit the UK, we can apply to do so. The UK has a strong record in the fight against trafficking and already complies in both legislation and practice with most of what the draft directive requires.

My Lords, the Government have been looking at that directive for some considerable time. Can the noble Earl assure the House that a decision will be made shortly, rather than allowing this situation to drift on indefinitely?

The noble Lord makes an important point. The issue is coming to fruition and when we see the final text we will determine whether we will opt in.

Is the noble Earl aware that when a specialist unit was set up at Heathrow it found that, of 1,800 unaccompanied children, half were under 11 and one-third were deemed to be at risk in some way? Have the Government given any consideration of whether the age at which children can travel unaccompanied is appropriately set?

The noble Baroness makes an important point. I am quite confident that we have considered carefully the matter of the age of the child. However, where the child is obviously younger or more vulnerable more attention will be paid by the UKBA officials.

My Lords, can the Minister tell me what role the British Transport Police has to play, particularly in relation to those two passenger stations? Also, in view of the Government’s dangerous proposals to politicise our police forces through elected police commissioners, what changes are envisaged for the British Transport Police?

My Lords, this issue is primarily a responsibility of the UKBA, not the British Transport Police. However, if those police saw a child at St Pancras or at any other station who appeared to be vulnerable in any way, but particularly to trafficking, it would obviously be their duty to do something about it and to refer the child to the local authorities.

Can the noble Earl tell the House how many prosecutions there have been in the past 18 months in respect of this serious criminal enterprise, and how many of those have been successful? Should not those agencies responsible for gathering evidence be greatly strengthened so that credible cases can be brought before the courts?

My Lords, some of these cases are extremely difficult to prosecute. What distressed me a lot was that there were very few prosecutions for sexual exploitation. However, the police and the CPS use every legitimate means at their disposal to disrupt this trade and make it difficult and unprofitable for the perpetrators. This approach has led to convictions for a range of serious charges including rape, brothel management and money-laundering. It is also important to note that where charges are brought against suspected traffickers they may not be charged with specific offences of trafficking, depending on the facts of the case.

My Lords, I suggest to the Minister that this is not a new concern. Forty years ago on Camden Council we were worried about vulnerable people turning up at Kings Cross, Euston and St Pancras and being at the mercy of evil people. In the Minister’s earlier Answer he said that, once located, vulnerable people would be passed over to the statutory authorities. Is he convinced that the local authorities—in this case, probably Islington and Camden—have sufficient resources and the proper trained personnel to deal with these people, who are in a terrible state when they have escaped the clutches of the people who bring them in?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises an important point, but very few trafficked children appear at St Pancras for the reasons that I have described. However, considerable numbers turn up at Stansted and Heathrow, and both Hillingdon Council and Essex Council have made progress on improving some of their statistics, which in the past were not very good at all.

My Lords, what co-operation is there between us and other member countries of the European Union that are also on the line that leads to St Pancras?

My Lords, when UKBA officials intercept a child being trafficked in France or Belgium, that child is quite properly handed over to the French or Belgian authorities. We are confident that they have the necessary procedures and facilities in place because they are signed up to the same conventions as we are.

My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that the UKBA officials in the juxtaposed zones in Belgium and France have the right capacity to identify people perpetrating this, given the difficulty that he has highlighted in doing so? Is there social work input into what they do? Perhaps he might write to me with the details of their training.

My Lords, I am convinced that UKBA officials are specially trained to be able to detect children being trafficked. There are tell-tale signs when something is wrong, and I am confident that they are properly trained in that respect.