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Child Trafficking

Volume 728: debated on Thursday 9 June 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the adoption of the European directive on human trafficking, what specific measures they will take to combat the trafficking of children and to support those trafficked.

My Lords, the UK already has a comprehensive system in place to combat this terrible crime and to ensure that child trafficking victims are identified and receive the necessary support. The Government will shortly be applying to the European Commission to opt into the directive. If the application is accepted, Government will work with the Commission on implementation of the directive. Arrangements will also be strengthened further through measures in the forthcoming human trafficking strategy.

I thank the Minister for that response and I am delighted by the news that the Government are going to try to opt into the European directive. However, does she agree that there are issues that still need to be looked at and explored? One of these is guardianship. Will the Government support the article in the directive that requires a child victim of trafficking to have a legal representative, advocate or guardian to support them—as they do in Scotland?

I can assure the noble Baroness that we have studied very carefully the situation in Scotland, and we are continuing to monitor it—although so far, it looks from what happens in Scotland as though the term “guardian” is probably more represented by the term “advocate”. A “guardian” has a slightly different connotation to “advocate”, but we are continuing to look at this matter. Our view is that the UK is already compliant with the directive in terms of child guardians. Local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure that they safeguard and promote the welfare of children. However, I must tell the noble Baroness that while I have been encouraged by what we will do when we are able to opt into the directive and by what is coming forward in the new strategy, I am fully aware that in the welfare of children there is a need for a holistic overview, over and above issues such as the roof above their heads, security, food on the table, education, and those core things that statutory agencies of course supply. I will be following this very carefully to make sure that the holistic view is represented.

My Lords, the assistance and support measures set out in Article 10 of the directive include the provision of,

“appropriate and safe accommodation”.

However, at Barnardo’s, in which I declare an interest as vice-president, we have found that trafficked children are still being placed in unsafe hotels, hostels and bed-and-breakfast accommodation. As the study by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection agency showed, this is likely to be the main reason why a high proportion of trafficked children still go missing, when they really should be safe in local authority care. What do the Government intend to do to ensure that the practice of putting vulnerable children into unsafe accommodation is stopped as soon as possible?

My noble friend is quite right. The number of children in inappropriate care, resulting in children who have been identified as being trafficked going missing, is a very serious problem on which we must bear down. My noble friend mentioned CEOP. I hope that she will take comfort that CEOP will have a new role in this area. It will provide a national focus on the issue of missing children, and its role will in particular include education and training for the police; supporting police operations through targeted research and analysis; operational support for forces in searching for missing children; and ensuring that co-ordination arrangements and capability are placed to manage complex or high-profile missing cases. I would expect the new, enhanced role of CEOP in this area to address some of the problems which my noble friend mentioned, which are serious and need addressing urgently.

Will the Government undertake to set up a system of cross-checking custody documents to ensure that those who purport to have legal custody of children actually do so?

My Lords, I can give that assurance. It is something that we are already looking at. As a new Minister, I had my initial briefing from the UK Border Agency. One of the first questions I asked was: what happens at passport control for children coming into this country who are not accompanied by a parent? Of course, there are quite legitimate reasons why children would come in from overseas with an adult relative, but we are aware of some of the case histories—the Victoria Climbié case comes to mind in particular. It is very difficult to say how we address in the short term the passport arrangements for other countries, but we should focus on it to ensure that we pick up those children at that early stage, at the border when they come into this country, rather than later when so much damage has been done.

My Lords, the Government have just announced proposals to merge the highly effective Child Exploitation and Online Protection agency into a new national crime agency. Of course, the previous head of CEOP resigned from the agency after seeing the Government's plans and has said that the submerging of CEOP within a far greater entity will not allow the critical child protection focus that we need. Where will responsibility for combating child trafficking lie within the proposed national crime agency? Does the fact that the Government have said that the cost of the new national crime agency will not exceed the aggregate cost of its predecessors, when the Child Exploitation and Online Protection agency is to suffer a 10 per cent reduction in its budget, simply confirm that it is highly vulnerable children who are likely to be in the firing line from the Government's decision to ram through cuts that are too fast and too deep?

My Lords, I quite disagree with the noble Lord. The announcement yesterday of the national crime agency means that we will set up a body which will have four pillars—which will not be silos; they will work together—of which child protection is a key part. The whole agency will be responsible for gathering intelligence, analysis of that intelligence and a crime-fighting force that will not just be based in the capital but will interact with police forces around the country.

The problems that we face in areas such as trafficking do not confine themselves to local police force borders. Children and adults who have been trafficked are moved around. They are, in effect, in slavery and may not be in the place where they came into the country. That is organised crime and it recognises no borders. I believe that the national crime agency will bear down on that, as it will in other areas of organised crime.

My Lords, we have already had First Reading of my Bill to implement the human trafficking directive. When will we have Second Reading so that we can get transposition under way?

My Lords, I would have to consult the usual channels on the timetabling of any legislation in this House. I hope that my noble friend will be reassured by the fact that, in opting into the directive, if that is accepted, we have already identified several changes that will need to be made in order to be compliant with the directive. They include: widening one existing offence of trafficking for forced labour; amending existing trafficking offences to confer extra-territorial jurisdiction over UK nationals who commit trafficking offences anywhere in the world; making mandatory some measures which are currently good practice—for example, appointing special representatives to support child witnesses during police investigations and criminal trials; and setting out the rights of victims to assistance and support.