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Human trafficking

May 18, 2011

Human trafficking

Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): It was only four short years ago that the United Kingdom reflected on the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807. At the time, among all the self-congratulatory celebration, I suggested that our renewed focus should be on refreshing our resolve to tackle the modern equivalent of slavery—human trafficking.

Human trafficking involves the recruitment, transfer and harbouring of men, and particularly women and children, so that they can be exploited for forced labour, sexual services or domestic servitude. It is the most unpleasant by-product of globalisation in the labour market and now scars each and every constituency. The modern-day slaves that human trafficking has created are voiceless and vulnerable. They are stowed in the untouched shadows of our communities. They exist not just in the seedier corners of my central London constituency or of Manchester, because the backdrop to their exploitation can equally be the sprawl of suburbia, the fields of our countryside or even the beaches that line our shores.

The means of their subjugation are varied. Sometimes, there is violence, but traffickers might equally threaten to harm a victim’s family; they might enslave people through debt; they might reduce them through shame; or they might manipulate them through deception. As illicit ways to make money go, trafficking can be perceived as comparatively low risk. A busy brothel with five to 10 girls in central London, for example, can make £20,000 a week, without the violence and risk associated with the illicit drugs trade. As for those with even baser motives, trafficked victims working outside the established sex trade are attractively difficult to detect.

In putting my speech together, I was aware of the imminent publication of the Home Office strategy on human trafficking, which was promised in the spring, but which may now be released in June, owing in part to pre-local election purdah. I hope that the debate will prove timely and will, along with the strategy, help to create momentum by raising public interest and reigniting the will to tackle trafficking more robustly. I also hope that it will serve to clarify what progress the Home Office has made since October, when a number of Members, including some in the Chamber, raised legitimate questions about the Government’s strategy in the debates marking anti-slavery week. A debate that took place as recently as last Monday helped to raise the issues before us, and I hope that the Minister will not find this morning’s proceedings too repetitious. I put in for this debate some weeks ago, but, alas, the unquenchable enthusiasm of the 2010 intake makes securing a Westminster Hall debate these days far trickier than it was in the past. Nevertheless, last week’s debate focused primarily on the European directive on human trafficking, so I hope that we can cover some new ground today.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I apologise, Mr Crausby, for not being able to stay until the end of the debate. In last week’s debate, a point was raised about there being an independent voice for children. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that there is an independent voice to support children in legally challenging the UK Border Agency, the police and other statutory or voluntary agencies, when the actions being taken are not in a child’s best interests?

Mr Field: I have particular sympathy with that point, not only because children are particularly vulnerable, but because having people acting in loco parentis in the way in which my hon. Friend has described is a well-known legal process.

It is important that we do not simply use the debate as an opportunity to produce an hysterical portrayal of the problem or to condemn Governments, past or present, for a lack of progress. I accept that this is an immensely complicated issue; it obviously has legal bearings, as my hon. Friend has suggested, and it touches on many parts of our system from policing to immigration, justice, housing and social services. I wish, however, to encourage a measured debate about how we can best create an environment that is hostile to traffickers. I also want to send out a clear message that we are firmly on the side of the victims. In discussing human trafficking, I want to pay tribute to parliamentarians past.

The erstwhile Member for Totnes, Anthony Steen, has probably done more than anyone to raise the profile of trafficking at the parliamentary level. He founded the first all-party group on the issue in 2006, and he continues to work as the chairman of the Human Trafficking Foundation, which is based at Blackfriars in my constituency. I played a small part in bringing Anthony together with the City of London corporation to ensure that the foundation was based in a high-profile place in central London. I cannot hope to emulate Anthony’s incredible passion for, and knowledge of, this subject, which he displayed in an extremely detailed debate that he led in the dying embers of the previous Parliament, but I hope that our discussion pays homage to some of his work.

Whenever we approach a subject such as trafficking, people inevitably demand numbers, so that they can grasp the scale of the problem. Unfortunately, as we all know, reliable statistics are difficult to come by. Some people contend that the number of trafficked victims is very low, while others contend that the figures are grossly underestimated. As a covert crime, trafficking is inevitably incredibly tricky to measure.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on this important debate, and we have had numerous debates on this issue in the Chamber. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Government strategy that will soon be published, and I do not condemn the Government for having a strategy, but it is action that we need. Children in the United Kingdom are being sold on the streets at £15,000 or £16,000 a time, which is an utter disgrace. We surely need action and some serious penalties for these crimes.

Mr Field: I entirely agree. In fairness to the Government, it is important that we have a framework in place, but, as the hon. Gentleman has said, any framework is pointless if action does not follow. One hopes that the robust measures that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned will form an integral part of what the Government propose shortly.

There is no uniform story for those who have been trafficked. Some of the markets in which they circulate are closed to outsiders. Victims are often disconnected from mainstream society, so they find it incredibly difficult to seek help. Others may fear the consequences of coming forward, whether that is punishment by their oppressor or, indeed, the UK authorities—many victims are illegal immigrants and fear deportation, for example. Migrants do not always understand that they have been trafficked, or they may be reluctant to reveal to strangers the full picture of their ordeal. Of course, some also embellish their experiences in the hope that their case will be looked on more kindly by the British authorities.

The most recent study of the number of women trafficked into off-street prostitution, Project Acumen, released its findings last August. Conducted by the Association of Chief Police Officers, it aimed to improve our understanding of the nature and scale of the trafficking of migrant women for sexual exploitation. It estimated—as I have said, we must always include a caveat with any figures—that 30,000 women are currently involved in off-street prostitution. Of those women, 17,000, or more than 50%, are migrants, with 2,600 believed to have been trafficked. Most were not found to have been subject to violence, but many were debt-bonded and strictly controlled. A further 9,600 women were considered vulnerable, but fell short of what police officers regarded as the trafficking threshold.

Acumen examined off-street prostitution in part because it is relatively easy to identify. Its organisers have to balance subtlety with the need to advertise their “product” in a competitive marketplace. Nevertheless, criticism has been levelled at the study from some quarters. As a result, I do not intend to use it as an unimpeachable benchmark, but rather as the best, and probably the most recent, research we have in what, as I have said, is a shadowy sphere.

Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman as concerned as me about other statistics, which estimate that 80% of the 8,000 women who work in off-street prostitution in London alone are foreign nationals, many of whom started to work as prostitutes, or were indeed forced into prostitution, when they were still children?

Mr Field: I am very concerned about that issue, and I will come to it a little later. As the hon. Lady will understand, my speech focuses on my constituency, and I have become aware of the extent of this problem through my dealings with local councillors and local police in central London.

As I have said, the figures are pretty sketchy, and the grim reality of the experience tends to smack us in the face only when a case comes before the courts or because a raid has taken place in our constituencies.

A recent example here in London is the grizzly ongoing case of a five-year-old Nigerian boy, who was identified only in March, 10 years after his murder. We believe that that tiny child was trafficked from Germany before being drugged and sacrificed in a ritual killing, his torso dumped in the Thames. Lucy Adeniji, a Church pastor, has been recently sentenced for trafficking two children and a 21-year-old woman to work for her as domestic slaves, locking them up and regularly beating them.

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): I apologise for being able to stay for only half the debate. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that with the various policing reforms we will lose some of the more targeted approaches to prosecution and the identification of victims, such as Pentameter 1 and 2 and Operation Golf, which were very effective in these difficult and complex areas of prosecution?

Mr Field: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point, which bears witness to what I said earlier about this not simply being a policing matter but one with a focus on justice and social services, housing and the work of local authorities. The most important thing to learn is that solving the problem needs a multidisciplinary approach. A pernicious trend emerged in my constituency of vans depositing women and children by Knightsbridge tube station in the morning to be picked up in the evening after a lucrative day’s begging. A couple of years ago, police raided properties in the constituency of the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) to crack down on Romanian and Bulgarian gangs who had trafficked children to pick the pockets of Londoners in my constituency and beyond.

Tackling adult trafficking is co-ordinated, as the Minister knows, by the UK Human Trafficking Centre, which was set up five years ago to bring together a range of stakeholders—police forces, the UK Border Agency, non-governmental organisations and so on. It acts alongside UKBA as one of the competent authorities for the national referral mechanism.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The Government have signed up to the directive on human trafficking, which is good news, but they have refused to appoint an independent rapporteur who would have overseen it and ensured that they fulfilled their obligations. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that that should be done as a matter of urgency?

Mr Field: I confess that I do. It is important, and I hope that the Minister will specifically pick up that point, because in this shadowy world beyond what one might regard as the normal scrutiny of the political process, it is all the more important that the voiceless are given a distinct voice of the kind that the hon. Gentleman has described. The national referral mechanism is a framework for identifying victims of human trafficking and ensuring that they receive appropriate care. It essentially means that if the police, social services or NGOs believe that they have encountered a trafficking victim, a referral is made for a decision on whether they qualify for a place in a Ministry of Justice safe house for 45 days. The 45-day period is designed to allow the referred person to recover and reflect on whether they wish to co-operate with police inquiries, return to their country of origin or take other action to get their life back on track.

The situation with child trafficking victims is slightly different in having its focal point with the trafficking unit of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre. Its work is assisted in the London area by Paladin, a dedicated team of Metropolitan police officers and UKBA staff based at Heathrow, who are tasked with stopping child trafficking through the entry points into London. Profiled compellingly by Bridget Freer in April in The Sunday Times magazine, Paladin is an absolutely tiny team with an enormous remit.

There are many deep concerns about the effectiveness of the approach being taken. UKHTC has been absorbed into the Serious Organised Crime Agency, a move criticised on the basis that the sheer size of SOCA dilutes the sense of purpose in dealing with human trafficking. With SOCA due to be replaced by a national crime agency, where do we anticipate UKHTC being placed?

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate, and I, too, must apologise that I have to leave before its end. Does he agree that the reorganisation has exacerbated the problem of the re-trafficking of victims, which needs to be urgently addressed? So many victims, who are initially secured in a safe house, are returned and re-trafficked by the very people from whom they were saved.

Mr Field: My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. One difficulty, even with the 45-day cooling-off period, is that a probably tragically high proportion of those who go through that process become known to the authorities later for other human trafficking matters. The NRM has been rightly condemned for the quality of the decisions, the poor impression given to victims, the lack of an appeals process and the failure to gather comprehensive data on the scale of the problem. There is concern, too, that insufficient resources are directed at policing teams. In April 2009, for example, the Home Office decided to discontinue funding for the Met’s human trafficking unit—the only specialist police human trafficking unit in the country.

The Met has since allocated a portion of its own budget to continue its trafficking work and to set up specialist crime directorate 9, which is the human exploitation and organised crime unit. I recently met Detective Superintendent Mick Duthie to discuss his work. There are now 38 people in his team, but their remit takes in not only trafficking, but a range of other street problems, vice, kerb crawling, casino fraud, money laundering and obscene publications, which, as one might imagine, are massive problems in their own right in the mere 6 square miles of my constituency. One wonders whether the other problems are crowding out trafficking.

We all appreciate that these are times of great financial austerity, and there is no realistic expectation of huge additional funding any time soon. The SCD team tries to be creative by setting up joint investigation teams and applying for EU funding streams, for example, but there are huge budgetary pressures, not least as trafficking investigations tend to be complex and lengthy, with overseas elements adding substantially to the costs. Detective Superintendent Duthie is convinced that more must be done to educate police officers, local authorities and health workers to spot the signs of trafficking. Sometimes, the different teams that come into contact with victims do not get the right information from them or pick up the trafficking indicators.

Fiona Bruce: My hon. Friend has referred to local authorities, and one local authority department that has an eagle eye on what is going on in property is the planning or development control department. Perhaps we have missed a trick in not involving them in the partnership working of locating properties in which such activity is happening.

Mr Field: My hon. Friend is right. She has a background as a lawyer, and I am sure that she dealt with such problems on a day-to-day basis in her former career. As I see in my constituency, the reality is that agencies are generally only alerted to these issues when there is a tip-off from local residents—for example, we have all been contacted by people who live next door or very near to a brothel. I suspect that a significant number of safe houses—safe from the perspective of traffickers—operate for months or years without being detected.

Fiona Bruce: Those properties are often residential properties in which a business is being run, and if that happened with many other types of business, the local authority would take immediate action due to the contravention of planning legislation. More initiative and activity from planning officers in that respect would greatly assist us.

Mr Field: My hon. Friend’s point is well made, although, without wishing to defend the planning officer fraternity too much, I suspect that the phenomenal financial constraints that most local authorities find themselves under mean that they are not necessarily prioritising this area, but it is important that we put those concerns on the record.

Tom Brake: My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. He has discussed different organisations needing to be educated about the problem, so that they can tackle it more effectively. Does he agree that when the elected police and crime commissioners take responsibility for policing, it will be essential for them also to understand the importance that people place on tackling human trafficking? That should not be neglected.

Mr Field: I am not sure that I want to go too deeply into concerns about precisely where that legislation goes, not least given yesterday’s comments by the Deputy Prime Minister, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right. If one considers the populist element of electing police commissioners, I hope that everyone—not only MPs, but interested residents, constituents and citizens—will make it plain that the problem needs to be tackled; indeed, it might be part and parcel of the manifestos of would-be candidates for such a role.

The Government have declared human trafficking to be a coalition priority; I mentioned earlier that we await a new strategy that will shortly step up our efforts in that regard. We recently put our name to the EU directive on trafficking, so the UK has signed up to various obligations. Nevertheless, and without wishing to pre-empt the strategy, I want to put some of my thoughts to the Minister. It is quite clear from my work on the subject that the current disparate, multi-agency approach has a multitude of fundamental flaws. I have alluded to some of those flaws, which others also recognise. Some are the result of the inherent difficulty in dealing with such a complex and varied problem. However, the Government should consider making a few reasonably small improvements.

The notion of a one-stop shop was put to me by Detective Superintendent Duthie as a means of improving the treatment of trafficked victims and the collection of intelligence. Victims tend to have a variety of needs, and at the moment they are dealt with by a huge range of organisations based in different places. A one-stop shop—a human trafficking centre, as it were—might assist in dealing with health, housing, legal aid, counselling, immigration, repatriation, family reunification and more. I wonder whether the Minister would let us know his thoughts on that idea.

When researching the subject in advance of this debate, I was struck by the poor information available on the internet of all places. If I were a trafficked victim, the first resource that I would use to find a way out of my situation would be the internet. Although a one-stop shop might be seen as too expensive, has the Home Office or any other body considered setting up a presence on the internet that would provide easy, comprehensive and readily available advice to trafficked victims on how to report their experience and, more importantly, how to escape? As things stand, information is dotted across a range of sites, which is incredibly confusing.

Earlier, I mentioned Paladin, the police unit tasked with identifying trafficked children at London’s ports. Concern has been raised by the recently ennobled Baroness Doocey about alternative trafficking routes. Her fear is that Paladin’s vigilance at Heathrow and other points of entry might persuade traffickers to use other routes; in particular, she is concerned that there are no specialist child protection officers working full time at St Pancras, even though that station is within Paladin’s remit.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He has touched on routes into the UK. Does he agree that we also need to establish the source from which many of the unfortunate victims of trafficking come? If it includes the small number of nations that have recently joined the EU, we need comprehensive discussions and negotiations with those member states to ensure that the tap is switched off at source.

Mr Field: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. It would be wrong to suggest that the entirety of the problem is caused by the 10 nations that joined the EU over the past seven years, particularly Romania and Bulgaria, to which I referred earlier. However, it is clearly a substantial problem, and the relatively open borders in much of the EU play a part.

I was discussing St Pancras. Eurostar has relatively lax controls, and children under the age of 12 can travel unaccompanied from Brussels and Paris, so long as they have a letter from the parents or guardians. Have the Government considered making points of entry more robust, not only at St Pancras but in those parts of the country not covered by Paladin?

Turning to the EU directive, one of its key requirements is to provide every trafficked child with a court-appointed guardian to look after their interests. That idea, which was championed by Anthony Steen, was referred to earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington.
I note from last Monday’s debate that the Minister is not convinced of that route, believing that local authorities are best placed to fulfil the guardianship role. With local authorities under the most enormous budgetary pressure, how will the Minister ensure that that duty is being fulfilled, and can he convince all stakeholders that the Government are not merely absolving themselves of responsibility?

I am reminded of the problems encountered by my local authority, Westminster city council, where there was a marked increase in homelessness following EU enlargement in 2004 and 2008. It had terrible difficulty extracting additional funds from the Home Office to deal with the localised effects of a national policy. As a quick aside, I secured a debate here some four years ago and the Home Office—at that juncture we had a Labour Government—mysteriously arrived an hour before the debate with cheque in hand. I accept that these things can happen—

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I hope it happens again.

Mr Field: That is wishful thinking. It would probably have to be the right hon. Gentleman making the speech. In a similar way, the matter of trafficked children is probably bearing more heavily on certain local authorities. For example, I imagine that the London boroughs of Hillingdon and Hounslow take a great number of the children that come through Heathrow. If the guardianship role is to be taken on by local authorities, will the Minister assure hon. Members that, if there is evidence of certain areas being badly affected, those local authorities will be adequately funded and not be forced to choose which of the competing aspects of child protection to fund?

I have referred to the Government’s commitment to making human trafficking a coalition priority, but there is concern that the slipping time scale for producing a robust anti-trafficking strategy is pushing some of the best experts away. The Minister may have seen a report by Mark Townsend in The Guardian this weekend on the loss of key UK staff in this area—it is an excellent piece. A former police officer, one of the most senior figures involved in investigating trafficking, reportedly stated that one of his greatest concerns is the lack of continuity in the Home Office team. Mr Townsend also highlighted concerns that the inter-ministerial group on trafficking has met only once. I would appreciate hearing the Minister’s response to these specific criticisms.

Does the Minister believe that an independent rapporteur to track our progress on tackling trafficking—such an appointment was suggested last Monday by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone)—might prove useful in reassuring those who criticise the Government by introducing a genuine sense of accountability?

In last October’s Westminster Hall debate, it was suggested that we should have a Pentameter 3, Pentameters 1 and 2 being two police operations to raid brothels, massage parlous and private homes where trafficking was suspected. The idea is that Pentameter 3 would send out the message that we are and continue to be tough on traffickers. The fact has been highlighted that precious few operational police units specifically target trafficking. I appreciate that those matters are essentially operational police matters, but I wonder whether the Home Office has had discussions with the police teams.

Yet more issues could be covered today, such as the role of the Crown Prosecution Service, the responsibilities of local authorities and details of how the UKHTC operates. Unfortunately I do not have time to touch on them, as others wish to speak.

Without being able to assess accurately the extent of the problem, I accept that it is difficult for any Government to be sure of the level and type of resources that are best suited to tackling it. It is all too easy to ignore trafficking. In short, if we do not go looking for the victims, we can too easily pretend that they are not there. When money is tight, the problem can only get worse. I sincerely hope that today’s debate will give some small voice to that forgotten group of the most vulnerable in our midst, and that it will provide the Government with an opportunity to reassert their commitment to rooting out this most despicable ill.