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Human Trafficking

Volume 744: debated on Thursday 21 March 2013


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many children have been referred to the National Referral Mechanism for victims of trafficking since it was launched in 2009.

My Lords, the national referral mechanism is a multi-agency framework designed to make it easier for organisations involved in a human trafficking case to co-operate, share information about potential victims and facilitate their access to tailored support. Between 1 April 2009 and 31 December 2012, 939 children were referred to this system by a range of front-line agencies.

I thank the Minister for that response. Will she join me in welcoming the steps that Eurostar is taking to improve measures to prevent child trafficking at St Pancras International station? Will she ensure that the UK Border Agency co-operates more fully with both Eurostar and the British Transport Police and does nothing to hinder any of these initiatives?

My Lords, human trafficking of adults and, especially, children is one of the vilest crimes. I congratulate my noble friend on her tireless efforts in this area. I most definitely welcome the steps being taken by Eurostar to improve prevention via St Pancras and will of course ensure that the UK Border Agency and the UK Border Force continue to work closely with all parties trying to prevent this crime. Indeed, UKBA is committed to developing its practices in support of victims. I can announce to the House today that from 1 April the UKBA team that handles trafficking decisions will be exclusively dedicated to that task and will not combine its work in this area with any other.

My Lords, I declare an interest as co-chairman of the parliamentary group against human trafficking. I am delighted to hear what the Minister has just said about UKBA and its concentration. Is she aware that many children do not go through the NRM but those who do go through are accommodated by local authorities, which do not have parental responsibility for those children under the Children Act 1989. Does she accept that it is very unsatisfactory that these children have no one with parental responsibility in this country other than, potentially, the traffickers themselves?

The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, highlights an important point, which is that we need to ensure that victims of trafficking are referred into what we call the NRM, the national referral mechanism, because it is through that mechanism that they then receive the support and care that they need. She might like to know—I am sure she is already aware of this—that, as part of the Government’s ongoing efforts to improve the way in which we support the victims of this terrible crime, we have commissioned the Refugee Council and the Children’s Society to review our arrangements in this area so we can ensure that best practice in certain local authorities is repeated in all areas. Their report is due to reach us some time later this year.

My Lords, is it not time that we called a spade a spade and described human trafficking as slavery, which is what it is and which has been illegal in this country for many years?

I like to think of myself as a plain speaker and I understand very much the point that my noble friend is making. However, the term “human trafficking” is one that is recognised internationally. Whether it is called “human trafficking” or “slavery”, the most important thing is that it is a vile crime and we need to stop it.

My Lords, in this week when many of us have been celebrating the role of Dr David Livingstone in ending slavery in east Africa in the 19th century, will the Government make that association between human trafficking and slavery in the 21st century and ensure that international institutions, such as the European Union, the United Nations and others, give appropriate attention to global action, not just national action, to end this horrendous trade in human misery?

The noble Lord is right. This crime crosses borders and is based on international gangs. In the UK, our law enforcement agencies continue to work with their counterparts overseas on joint investigations to ensure that we tackle this by prevention and not just support people once they are victims of this terrible crime.

My Lords, as the Minister will know, and as my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss mentioned, children who are accommodated in care are not made the responsibility of the local authority. When they then go missing, the police often do not follow them up with great astuteness. I have just read in the newspaper that there are to be two categories of missing person for the police. There will be those who have just gone missing and are lost and those who are worth following up. Will the Minister ensure that these children are in the category of those who are worth following up and are the responsibility of a local authority?

The Home Office is working with partners to address the issue of all children going missing from home and care through its missing children and adults strategy. In addition, work is being taken forward by the Department for Education to improve the quality and consistency of data about when and why children go missing from care. We are very much aware that children who are victims of trafficking sometimes go missing when they go into care because they come into contact again with those who trafficked them. Our priority is to ensure that that does not happen. Those children are very much our priority.

Will my noble friend join me in congratulating Mr Anthony Steen on the tremendous work that he has done on this matter? Will she use her influence to try to gain him some status for the work that he does here and abroad on the matter?

I am very grateful to my noble friend for raising the subject of the work done by Mr Anthony Steen. I will certainly ensure that my colleagues in the Home Office are properly reminded of it after today’s Question Time.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for the answers that she has given at the Dispatch Box today. This issue unites rather than divides the House. However, the scale of the problem is shocking. We are talking about children sold into slavery or prostitution, or who disappear altogether. Bearing in mind the Government’s proposal to withdraw from the policing and justice provisions of the European Union, will she discuss with her colleagues how we will continue our co-operation with other European countries, given that, as she said, European and worldwide co-operation is so important in tackling this issue?

As the noble Baroness will be aware, we have signed up to the European directive on human trafficking and will be fully compliant by next month. We attach such importance to this issue that we wanted to ensure that the work that we are doing to co-operate across all boundaries was properly reflected by our subscription to that EU directive. There is no suggestion that we would want to do anything to weaken our commitment in that area.

My Lords, the whole House will agree that people who traffic those children are usually not only heartless but extremely determined and controlling. Does the Minister agree that those who are in the forefront of trying to identify and protect these children need to be even more determined than those who are trafficking them? Can we be assured that examples such as the one referred to will be made more general across the country and that the legislation will be reviewed more thoroughly?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that our priority has to be about raising awareness of this crime and ensuring that those who are at the front line in a range of different agencies can spot where somebody is being trafficked as, sadly, this is a crime where victims sometimes do not know they are victims. That links to a Question I answered some months ago about child sexual exploitation and the victims of that crime not necessarily knowing that they are being abused in the way that they are. We are investing money in making sure that the professionals at the front line are improving all the time in identifying them. Evidence of that is the fact that more people are being referred to the NRM than have been up to now.

My Lords, given the scale of the problem that noble Lords have mentioned, is it not surprising that since 2009 only 10 people have been convicted of trafficking children into the United Kingdom? Does that not suggest that there is a great deal more work to be done?

My noble friend is right. The level of conviction in this area is sadly low, although there are other convictions. People may have committed trafficking offences, but their conviction is for other offences: rape and so on. My noble friend’s point is valid, and I share it.

My Lords, is it possible for the Government to give a firm commitment that vulnerable people, particularly children, who have been trafficked will not be deported back to the country from which they have been trafficked as they are then likely to fall back into the hands of those who have trafficked them?

I refer the noble Lord to the point I made at the beginning about the UKBA now having a team dedicated exclusively to decision-making around victims, which is important in this area. In addition, it is important for me to be clear that the UKBA has a “victims first” attitude. We address the needs of the victim and investigate the crime against them before any consideration is made of an individual’s immigration status. That is secondary in situations such as this.

I have a background question. As the Minister knows, the Children Act was passed in 1989 and came into force in 1992. Many things have changed since then. Is it intended that there should be a general and comprehensive review of the operation of that statute incorporating the matter raised by my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss?

I am not aware that we have any plans to review that legislation in the way that the noble Lord proposes, but part of what the interdepartmental ministerial group which looks at human trafficking does is continual monitoring of the legislation to see that it is proper and appropriate for tackling this vile crime.