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Covid-19: Child Trafficking

Volume 806: debated on Tuesday 29 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how measures to protect the victims of child trafficking have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

My Lords, protecting those at risk from abuse and exploitation is a priority for this Government. Throughout the pandemic, the Government have continued to monitor and respond to the impact of Covid-19. Working with local authorities which are responsible for children, the Government have ensured that specialist support remains fully operational so that these children can access support remotely. The Government took action to safeguard vulnerable children by providing an additional £500 million for communities, including children’s services.

My Lords, I thank the Minster for the response. Evidence from the UN human rights report on the consequences of Covid-19 shows that the risk of online sexual exploitation of children has increased because parents, devoid of income, are turning to illegal methods of getting money, including selling videos of their own children being abused. What action have the Government taken since this evidence came to light in order to crack down on this appalling exploitation of innocent children?

I wholeheartedly concur with the noble Baroness’s concerns—concerns that the Prime Minister also shares. She will recall that he opened the virtual hidden harms summit in order to drive action to tackle domestic abuse, child sexual exploitation and modern slavery, which, as she has said, often now can take place online.

My Lords, would the Government consider rolling out across the country child guardians for the benefit of the foreign children who have been trafficked here?

The noble and learned Baroness will probably know that we have already rolled them out in a third of local authorities in England and Wales. That work is progressing, starting with those areas with the highest need in requiring independent guardians for children who have been trafficked.

My Lords, last weekend, in Trafalgar Square, alongside the anti-maskers and the anti-vaxxers were conspiracy theorists who believe that an international elite is kidnapping children for abuse, sacrifice and to drink their blood—an insidious resurgence of historical anti-Semitic blood libel. These people have hijacked the legitimate concerns about child trafficking and abuse. This vile nonsense is circulating increasingly widely and, worryingly, is gaining credence. What are the Government going to do to combat it?

The noble Lord will want, as I do, to see the online harms White Paper become a Bill in Parliament. Much work is going on to tackle that sort of abuse, which is probably on the increase during the Covid pandemic. On conspiracy theorists of all descriptions—including anti-vaxxers and those against 5G masts, which we saw at the beginning—clearly that sort of misinformation can be incredibly harmful.

My Lords, the Minister talked about the role of local authorities. Covid-19 has led to the scaling back of some crucial local services, one of which is on-site workplace inspections to identify child and adult victims of trafficking and rescue them. Can the Government tell the House how many inspections have been carried out since the start of the pandemic?

The noble Lord will not be surprised that I do not have that figure at my fingertips, but I can tell him that we are very mindful of the dangers that children and people who are vulnerable to trafficking might face during this pandemic. The Government recently gave £500 million for local pressures, which the issue he mentioned might come under, and have given local authorities a total of £3.7 billion to acknowledge and deal with issues of vulnerability.

My Lords, can the Minister advise your Lordships’ House what discussions have taken place at ministerial level with the devolved regions about online child trafficking, particularly in the Covid crisis?

The noble Baroness will probably know that we are in regular contact with the devolved Administrations on Covid and lots of other things. It is important that they are not only engaged but in agreement with some of the actions that we are taking.

My Lords, what part does the Minister believe can be fulfilled completely by local authorities? Can they be encouraged? They have always been closely involved in helping these people and it is important that their role continues. Does the Minister agree?

I agree wholeheartedly with my noble friend. Local authorities are of course the responsible authorities as the corporate parents of children, for whom they have a duty of care.

Save the Children reported that children make up a quarter of trafficking victims. Do the Government agree that a lack of safe, legal asylum routes for unaccompanied children puts them at risk of people traffickers and that, particularly during Covid-19, this has led to an increase in dangerous journeys across the channel in small boats, in addition to journeys in the backs of lorries? If the Government agree, what protection, including safe routes, will they put in place for such unaccompanied children?

The noble Lord will know that we have safe and legal routes. I say it time and again: we do not want children to make the terrible, perilous journey in those small boats to this country. It is also worth acknowledging that 65% of trafficking victims are in fact UK nationals.

My Lords, access to EU police databases and co-operation with multilingual officers has been crucial in helping to track and prevent transnational crime, such as child trafficking. What assessment has been made of how the pandemic could compound the impact of our leaving the EU on access to these resources and personnel?

The Government see it as very important that we continue not only to share such data but to have access to it. To that end, it is a top priority going forward.

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, I am concerned about the child victims of trafficking who are coerced into illegal activities, such as working in cannabis factories. These children may be caught and prosecuted, while those who run the factories escape. How will our overstretched children’s services support such victims in these challenging times?

The noble Baroness will recall that, through the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the Government introduced the statutory defence for victims of modern slavery to protect those really vulnerable people who would previously have been unfairly prosecuted, as she said, for crimes that they were forced to commit by their exploiters—notably, as she mentioned, in cannabis cultivation.

My Lords, support for the victims of child trafficking is obviously vital, but so is the prosecution of the perpetrators responsible. What action are the Government currently taking internationally to ensure a higher level of prosecution of those responsible for child trafficking? How can we ensure that, in the words of the Foreign Secretary, the UK, as a “force for good” in the world, does more to achieve that goal?

The noble Lord may recall the NCA swoop of a few months ago that pulled in many illicit articles and items. You cannot look at child trafficking in isolation; it is part of a package of drugs, guns, trafficking and child sexual exploitation, and it can be tackled effectively only at an international level.

Is the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, online? No. All supplementary questions have been asked and we will now move to the next Question.