HC Deb 19 July 2004 vol 424 cc120-34

Motion made, and Question proposed That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jim Murphy.]

9.30 pm
Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North)

I am very grateful for the opportunity to have this debate on child trafficking, an issue that has been of great concern to me for a considerable number of years. It has also been highlighted by a large number of organisations, in particular UNICEF, World Vision and Save the Children, which have all campaigned strongly over the appalling exploitation of children and young people through trafficking. My local women's institutes have also been very concerned about the issue and have lobbied me on it. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) is also going to make some points, as he, too, has been active on this matter for a long time.

I recognise that the present Government have taken substantial steps to deal with child trafficking, including measures in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill, and the funding of the Eves project, as well as the Paladin Child project. I congratulate the Home Office and Metropolitan police staff who are working in Heathrow on that project and who do amazing work checking on the status and care arrangements for children coming into the UK. I was able to spend time with them and also with the immigration and nationality directorate staff at Croydon. I was impressed with the expertise, thought and care that they put into their very difficult work. I was very moved by some of the children whom I encountered and heard interviewed.

The reason why I asked for this debate was that, despite the legislation and the very good work that has taken place at Heathrow, the reality appears to be that children and young people are still being trafficked into the country. When they emerge in the system, in schools, health services or in my advice surgeries in particular, there are real difficulties in getting their position resolved. Although I have a big interest in this matter as a policy issue, my main reason for raising it this evening is that it is a pressing constituency concern as well.

I believe that there is a strong need to ensure that there is some real connection between the national and strategic work and the local work dealing with the individual child. We often get transfixed by some of the criminal issues that surround child trafficking, particularly with regard to sexual exploitation, whereas an awful lot of it is not so spectacular and is much more humdrum, relating to benefit fraud, private fostering arrangements and other such issues.

I am concerned mainly with child protection rather than criminal issues. I have repeatedly dealt with cases in which children have been trafficked into the UK, but in which it has been exceptionally difficult or, as in most cases, completely impossible, to sort out their immigration status and get them essential support. There is a lot behind the children whom I have encountered that is not clear. In most cases, I do not know why they leave their country of origin, although I would assume that their parents want to get them out of countries that are being destroyed by conflict and poverty.

It is sometimes unclear how such children are being exploited. On one occasion, the exploitation involved domestic servitude, in some cases the sexual exploitation of older girls and women was involved and other cases included benefit claims and private fostering. Exploitation might even begin with the best of intentions and occur because of changed circumstances.

It is clear that people are paid to bring children, who often change hands more than once before they get to Northampton, into the country. The relationship between such children and their carers is not always clear, and they are often moved about. I am not prepared to see those children continue to be moved about and treated in that way without the implementation of more robust arrangements to protect them.

I first came across child trafficking back in the early 1990s, when I was a councillor in south London. I had to deal with a young Somali girl who had been brought into the country to marry a much older man and run a home for a series of children smuggled in on false papers. Her story was similar to those that I have heard repeatedly in recent years. Agents bring in children whom they usually pass off as relatives. The children are given papers, which are then taken back by the agent or destroyed—normally, the agent takes the papers back—and are sometimes taken to a community centre or similar in London before being moved on. It is hard to get more precise information and doubts always exist about the extent to which children are coached and the possibility that some of the children might be UK children who are being circulated around the system.

I have met a reasonable number of such children and have got to know some of them well over the years. They have clearly been smuggled through immigration by being passed off as agents' children, and they end up in Northampton with no papers and no status. Trying to get their status sorted out is extremely difficult, especially for younger children, who are the most vulnerable and who often do not know where they have been and where they have come from.

I shall give some examples. A young woman who was brought into the UK to start a better life ended up in domestic servitude—a church community helped her to leave her home. Two little boys, who are still waiting for DNA tests to establish their relationship with their father so that their status here can be resolved, were apparently brought in by an agent in November 2000, and they are still in a bureaucratic limbo—they are at school, but they cannot register with doctors because they do not have birth certificates. I have been in contact with the Home Office about them since early last year.

Agents brought two young girls into the UK via Heathrow on 15 May 2002 and 7 September 2001, and the girls' status has not been resolved—a dispute seems to be occurring between two women over which of them is the girls' mother. A number of teenage girls who were brought in and moved around repeatedly are still without papers. Other cases have occurred, some of which were referred to people involved in the care of children in Northampton.

Those children are not unaccompanied minors who claim asylum on arrival. Some 2,800 unaccompanied minors arrived last year and they are relatively well off compared with the children I am talking about. I am discussing children who appear in the system without proof of identity, residential status and clear safeguards or protections. They are children such as Victoria Climbié, who was brought into the UK by being passed off as her aunt's daughter. I always have a great sense of unease when I deal with such cases and talk to the children.

Those children need more protection, and I ask my hon. Friend the Minister for five things. First, I know that the Home Office is already training more staff to do the work undertaken by the team at Heathrow that stops and checks children being brought into the country when it has doubts about the arrangements. I hope that the training will progress quickly and that such teams will be installed at ports across the country. The work is remarkable and involves simple things such as discovering whether the relationship between the two people is what it is claimed to be by picking up the body language between an adult and a child and determining proper arrangements for the care of the child. When I was at Heathrow, the team picked up a mother and son, who were not in fact mother and son—the so-called son had a load of drugs in his little rucksack.

Secondly, I ask that applications for asylum or immigration status from children are fast-tracked. Taking three years to process a claim for asylum or indefinite leave may not be a disaster for an adult, but it is an eternity for a boy of five or six. If a parent or adult with care agreed to a DNA test in 2003, it should not take 18 months to get it done in order that the relationship between the adult and the child can be established and the immigration claim properly assessed—it should happen much more quickly than that. In the meantime, the child cannot gain access to a range of services, including health services.

Thirdly, some good joint working between national and local authorities and between the different local authorities is required to ensure that problems such as data sharing are properly resolved. If there have to be delays in inquiries into the exact status of a child, some thought must be given to liaising with the local social services and housing authorities to prevent repeated moves and to ensure that the child's school is properly involved and that other safeguards are in place.

Fourthly, the Home Office needs to give some thought, in conjunction with the airlines, to how children's identity documents should be handled. That critical matter has been discussed at official level, in the industry and among concerned groups. Perhaps the documentation for certain children who travel on airlines should be kept by stewards or similar people on the plane, then handed over to the immigration staff when the children disembark.

It is hard to describe how horrible it is having to ask a child about their identity when they do not know. I once talked to a child who, as was clear from having tracked back through the record of what had happened to her, must have originally left her home in Somalia when she was about four years old. When I asked her where she had come from and what it was like there, she did not know, not because she was trying to deceive me, but because she could not remember as she was too little. Once children forget, there is nothing on earth that one can do about it. As for the children themselves, they lose their sense of themselves, who they are and where they have come from. I very much feel for the children who become lost in bureaucratic red tape.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)

I am listening intently to the hon. Lady. Is it not sensible that, when a child arrives in the country with an adult, there should be some way of ascertaining that the adult has parental responsibility, either as a parent or a relative in place of parents, and that if that is not the case, there should, as in the ordinary way, be an involvement by social services or the authorities at the airport before the child is free to enter the country? Moreover, should not there be much greater involvement with international social services that deal particularly with those countries in west Africa from which most of these trafficked children still come? That still has not happened, even in the light of the Victoria Climbié case.

Ms Keeble

Yes, I agree. Some thought must be given to how one identifies the children who are covered by the documentation that is provided. The children should be with parents or adults who have an established relationship with them, and the nature of the relationship should be absolutely clear. I would not expect genuine parents to be too worried about handing over their children's passports for safe keeping for the duration of the flight. However, the points that the hon. Gentleman made are critical because the impersonation of a relationship rather than the forged documents is the real problem, as, for example, in the case of Victoria Climbié. It is probably the bigger problem in all the cases with which I have dealt. I therefore agree with the hon. Gentleman, who had one of the homes in his constituency.

Fifthly, I ask that children who are found to have no residential status be regarded as being at risk. They should be on the at-risk register and social services should treat them as being at risk until it is proven otherwise. One of the current problems is that, when children turn up without status or papers and efforts are made to get them on to somebody's asylum application or to get their residential status linked with an adult with whom there is no proven link, one has to prove to the local authorities that they are at risk. One has to try to get intervention on that basis. I believe that the boot should be on the other foot and that the children should be protected until it is clearly established that they are with people with whom they have a relationship and that they will be safe.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration has on file many of the details of the individual cases that I have encountered over the years. I hope that he has considered carefully the lessons to be learned from them. I have not gone into them in detail tonight because they refer to individual children. However, I hope that my hon. Friend considers them carefully and puts in hand some of the steps, perhaps with colleagues in other Departments, that will bring those children out of the twilight world in which they live and give them the status and protection that they need. I seriously hope that he will examine that as a matter of urgency because repeated cases come through my advice surgeries. All the national agencies are clear that the problem is substantial. We must protect those children and ensure that we have no more disasters.

9.47 pm
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) on her tremendous work on such a serious issue and on her good fortune in securing the debate, especially when we have a little more opportunity than normal to discuss the matter. I also congratulate her on everything that she said, with which I heartily concur.

I have nothing like my hon. Friend's direct experience of children who have been trafficked and the situations in which they appear in this country. However, I have spoken to several people and organisations that are involved in the issue and I am extremely concerned about what I have heard of the circumstances that they have come across.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, who will reply to the debate. I am not sure of the collective noun for social workers—I am sure that it is not pejorative—but I took a gaggle of them to see him late last week with a proposal for a pioneering international approach to the subject and other associated problems. I was pleased with his positive response and interest.

I have heard that trafficking in children affects children in a wide variety of situations, including those who have been trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and benefit fraud. Some of the examples that I have heard of children being trafficked for sexual exploitation sound like the very worst forms of child abuse and exploitation that there could possibly be. Reference has already been made to the work that has been done in the safe house in West Sussex to deal with children who came to this country not only frightened out of their wits by the real threats made to them and to their families back in the countries from which they came, but scared by tales of witch doctors, voodoo, juju and black magic that have been perpetrated on them. There is evidence of children being trafficked into this country for sexual exploitation, and being trafficked beyond this country to Italy, to work there as prostitutes to pay back the traffickers many times over the money that they expended on bringing the children here.

There are many organisations working in this field. As well as the ones that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North mentioned, there is ECPAT, which stands for End Child Prostitution And Trafficking, and AFRUCA—Africans United against Child Abuse—an organisation rooted in the African community in this country that is doing sterling work and has access to information of profound importance. That organisation knows of children in domestic servitude and of children coming into this country to be brought into private fostering and involved in benefit fraud; we need to tap into that.

This problem requires a multi-agency response. I believe that the Home Office is doing an excellent job in this regard, with legislation already being put in place to deal with the criminals who profit from this appalling trade. However, we also need very good relationships between the immigration and nationality directorate, the police, and social services, all of whom must work coherently together. Operation Paladin has been a step in the right direction, but we do not know the extent of the problem. We suspect that it is a large one, involving appalling exploitation, but we do not know, and we do not have effective models or effective ways of working with children who have been trafficked. We need the organisations to work together and we need a range of resources to deal with those children. We also need to learn the most effective ways of dealing with them and we need international work to link with agencies back in the countries whence they came. We need a child-centred, international social work approach to this serious problem, and I hope that this debate will help us to move forward on a variety of fronts.

9.53 pm
The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Mr. Desmond Browne)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) on securing this debate. I know that she has come across cases of trafficked children, or of children who are suspected of having been trafficked, in her constituency, and I commend her for the assiduous way in which she has brought the concerns of her constituents to the House. I hope that I shall be able to reassure her, in my response to this short debate, that the Government are taking the issue of child trafficking seriously.

All too often, many important issues are discussed in front of a comparatively sparsely populated House of Commons because they are raised in the context of an Adjournment debate. What this short debate has lost in quantity, however, it has made up for in quality. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), whose reputation in relation to such issues, particularly child protection issues, stands the test against any other Member—and furth of this House—has been able to make a contribution. I shall come shortly to the meeting that we had last week, and what further contribution the delegation that he brought to see me can make with the Government in advancing public policy on this issue.

I also want to mention the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). Although his contribution was only through an intervention, clearly, he has a degree of knowledge on this issue, which is based, I understand, on some constituency experience. Even in that short intervention, he brought additional information to the debate, attention to which should serve us well in the future.

Child trafficking is a pernicious crime. It violates basic human rights, and treats its victims as a commodity to be bought or sold, or to be bought, sold and abused in some circumstances. In a globalised society, it is also a crime that transcends national borders, and in some circumstances, organisational boundaries. The Government need to work together across agencies, and across Governments, if we are to tackle it effectively. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North for her opening remarks acknowledging the work done in this area of public policy by the Government, but I accept her advocacy of the fact that there is more to do.

My hon. Friend referred to suspected cases involving trafficked children in her constituency, and I know that she had concerns that certain cases had not been responded to either appropriately or speedily enough. I know that because in the comparatively short time that I have been the Minister with this responsibility, we have discussed those issues on a number of occasions. Indeed, we made arrangements to have a meeting later this week—I do not know whether this debate will serve to satisfy her request for a meeting, or whether the meeting should still go ahead. If she wishes it still to go ahead, I will be happy to meet her.

Ms Keeble

I did not go into all the detail of the cases, because I knew that we would be talking about them later this week.

Mr. Browne

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I am glad that I will not have to take that meeting out of my diary. I was keen to have the meeting, to discuss her concerns and to give her the reassurance in private that I am not able to give in this debate for obvious reasons. I hope that I can reassure her that the necessary steps were taken to investigate the issues that she brought to the Government's attention, and I am sure that when we meet later this week—on Thursday, I believe—I will be able to satisfy her.

I accept, however, that there were failings, especially in relation to the length of time taken to deal with her correspondence on those cases. I could have admitted that in private, but it is appropriate that I admit in public that there was such an error because, as a result of those failings, I ordered a review of the way in which correspondence relating to child protection issues was dealt with on receipt in the Home Office. I am pleased to inform her that processes have now been put in place that enable priority action to be given to letters such as those that she has written previously on such issues.

I want to outline briefly the various stages in child trafficking, and how the Government are approaching those. As we go through those stages, I shall seek appropriately to interweave my responses to the specific requests made by my hon. Friend. I shall refer to the interesting international proposal, which was brought to my attention earlier this month, on which I had a meeting with my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre and his gaggle of social workers, as he described them, recently.

First, we need to do preventive work in source countries to stop trafficking happening in the first place. We need an effective enforcement response to clamp down on trafficking when it does happen, and we need tough sentences in place to ensure that traffickers are suitably punished. We need to do all that we can to support the victims of child trafficking, and to help them to overcome their trauma and to restart their lives where appropriate.

First, I want to mention the ground-breaking work done by Operation Paladin Child.

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jim Murphy.]

Mr. Browne

Operation Paladin Child was led by the Metropolitan police in conjunction with the immigration service, social services and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. It took place between August and November last year at Heathrow and was funded by Reflex, the multi-agency task force that tackles organised immigration crime.

Although the operation did not find conclusive evidence that children were being trafficked into Heathrow—which was reassuring, to some extent—it threw up child protection issues that might not otherwise have come to light. Its report made a number of recommendations on how the police, the immigration service and social services could work together more effectively. I know that my hon. Friend has taken a keen interest in the recommendations, and I think her call for closer co-operation mirrors them to a significant degree. As she told us, she visited Heathrow to see what was happening for herself. I am grateful to her for her appreciation of the work that was being done there, and will ensure that her remarks are passed to those who were responsible for the operation.

I can reassure my hon. Friend that I am working closely with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children. We are considering the recommendations, and will be responding to them. I hope to be able to do that by the autumn. I recently met my right hon. Friend informally, and we have agreed to do the preliminary work during the summer recess, with a view to a meeting in the autumn to deal with this and other issues in which we share an interest.

Mr. Dawson

Can my hon. Friend assure me that he and our right hon. Friend the Minister for Children will want to apply the lessons of Operation Paladin Child to all ports throughout the country?

Mr. Browne

That was a timely intervention. I was about to say that a child protection officer is already based at Heathrow, and that the immigration service is developing a proposal for social work teams to be based at major ports of entry. I cannot guarantee that that will include ports of entry throughout the United Kingdom, but it will follow a risk-based assessment, and will involve all ports where there is evidence that such behaviour might take place.

Let me say something about the Government's work with source countries, which is very important. This will, I think, partly answer my hon. Friend's point about travel documents and children. Our work is vital if we are to tackle trafficking at its root. We have a number of initiatives overseas. Some, for example a new Home Office project in the Czech Republic, are intended to build the capacity of our overseas partners to tackle trafficking. The twinning project, funded by the European Commission, is being run in conjunction with the Netherlands Centre for International Police Cooperation and the Czech Ministry of Interior. The aim is to strengthen the republic's capacity to combat trafficking into, within, and out of the country. I travelled to Prague last month to attend the launch, and was able to see at first hand that it is a genuine partnership between three European Union countries committed to working together on this important issue.

We are also committed to working with overseas partners to raise awareness of trafficking. Bilaterally and through international organisations, we are supporting projects in a number of countries, including those thought to be key source countries for child trafficking. We have given support to Anti-Slavery International for its work with child rights organisations across west Africa to increase awareness of the dangers in trafficking for domestic work. Through the International Labour Organisation, we are supporting a project to reduce the trafficking of women and children in the Mekong region of south-east Asia.

From the information gleaned from those projects, Operation Paladin Child, and my own research following visits to ports of entry and discussions on unaccompanied children with immigration officers, I have come to the conclusion that we need to work not only with other countries and agencies but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North suggested, with the carriers, whose involvement should not be limited to ensuring that children's travel documents are secure. Hon. Members will be aware that the Asylum and Immigration Bill (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill, which is currently before Parliament, includes provisions on the protection of documentation. Under the powers available to the Home Secretary, the Home Office and the Government, carriers will be required to copy documentation, but we must also work with them to ensure that they are aware of the risks of their actions. I was astonished to learn on a visit to Heathrow terminal 3 that a carrier—I will not name it, because it would be invidious to do so without giving it prior notice—recently carried 17 unaccompanied children on one plane, and that that was not an unusual event. They could have been 17 perfectly innocent journeys, and those children could have been well protected, but the fact that the carrier had a history of carrying children in such numbers suggested that something was amiss. When I explored the matter further, immigration officials told me that suspicions were aroused by the children's behaviour and that they and others had had to take action, confirming that there was a problem.

I am not saying that the practice of carrying unaccompanied children, inadvertently or by omission, into dangerous circumstances is restricted to one carrier, but international carriers with the power to transport young children thousands of miles across the globe in a comparatively short period ought to take their responsibilities seriously. Some carriers do so, but it is incumbent on Government Departments to ensure that all carriers approach the issue with the seriousness that it merits. Their principal focus should be the protection of the children they carry, and it is my intention, in consultation with fellow Ministers, to seek to ensure that that objective is met by carriers who carry children into UK ports of entry, insofar as it is consistent with international law.

Trafficking does not take place in a vacuum, and we have good reason to believe that it is closely linked to other forms of organised crime, such as drug trafficking, gun crime and prostitution. I recently read a sensationalist newspaper account in which an immigration officer in a trial for trafficking was reported as saying that some organised criminals had turned from drug trafficking to people trafficking because it was more lucrative. It was implied that that was the fault of the UK Government or the Home Office, because they had created the trafficking, but nothing could be further from the truth. The number of people trafficked to the UK, while worrying, pales into insignificance next to the number of people trafficked around the world and the appalling number who die on those journeys. Many of them do not get anywhere near the shores of the developed western world——their objective—before they perish. Given the amount of money that people are prepared to pay to try to make those journeys or be carried by traffickers, I am not at all surprised that criminals are turning from drug trafficking to people trafficking. As a developed country, and given the resources at our disposal, we have a responsibility to interdict such behaviour wherever it occurs in the world. The people at risk from such behaviour are some of the most vulnerable, and as a result of it they are dying in significant numbers.

International co-operation and joint working across agencies are absolutely essential if we are to combat trafficking. In the UK, we have achieved this through the establishment of Reflex, a taskforce that brings together the police, intelligence agencies, the immigration service, Government Departments and the Crown Prosecution Service to tackle organised immigration crime, which includes people smuggling and trafficking. The UK Government are supporting the important work of Reflex with £20 million of funding per year over the next two years. Only through this kind of genuine partnership will we bring together all the agencies that need to be involved in putting a stop to trafficking.

We are seeing excellent results from this multi-agency approach. Between April 2003 and April 2004, 38 organised crime groups involved in organised immigration crime were disrupted. In the same period, 38 convictions were secured for related offences, the most high profile of which was the conviction of a ruthless criminal who had trafficked young girls into prostitution in London. Seven young women from Romania and Moldova were identified, the youngest of whom was only 17. Each victim thought that they were being taken to the UK for employment, but they were forced into prostitution, and beaten and raped by the traffickers. The Metropolitan police and Reflex did a tremendous job on this operation, and I would like to pay tribute to their skills, which resulted in the principal defendant being sentenced to 23 years' imprisonment.

Our work on enforcement goes hand in hand with tough new offences on trafficking. The UK was closely involved in the UN protocol on trafficking. We have also signed the EU framework decision on trafficking for labour and sexual exploitation, which has committed us to introducing criminal sanctions covering these forms of trafficking. Sexual offences legislation that came into force in May introduces comprehensive offences covering trafficking into, out of and within the UK for all forms of sexual exploitation.

We have also responded to increasing concern about trafficking for forced labour, slavery or removal of organs. A new offence covering trafficking for these purposes is part of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, Etc.) Bill, which is currently before the House. We have taken steps to ensure that our legislation criminalises trafficking in both adults and children. Indeed, we tabled an amendment to that Bill on Report on 1 March, to ensure that children and vulnerable people were covered. When this last set of offences comes into force, we will have strong and comprehensive laws that send a clear message that we will not tolerate trafficking.

I want to outline what we are doing to support victims of child trafficking, the human cost of which is very high. Being trafficked is a terrifying and traumatic experience. Victims can be forced into domestic service or into the sex trade, as we have heard, and we need to ensure that systems are in place to protect them; only then can we help them overcome their experiences. Of course, we want them to be confident enough to help the police in bringing the perpetrators to justice.

It is the local social services departments that will provide support for victims of child trafficking. Such children are likely to be in need of welfare services and, in many cases, protection under the Children Act 1989.

Ms Keeble

Will my hon. Friend spell out carefully what he expects social services to do? One reason why I asked for such children to be considered as "at risk" is that social services would then be immediately obliged to help them. At the moment, it is very hard for children to get that help.

Mr. Browne

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. Given that we have discussed this issue, she knows that social services have a duty to safeguard and to promote the welfare of such children following an assessment of their circumstances. Social services departments will undertake needs assessments, and they will provide services in the light of the outcome of those assessments. Such services will be tailored to the individual needs of the child, just as they should be for any child in need.

We recognise that there is a real danger that victims returning home will fall back into the hands of traffickers. That is why we will remove unaccompanied children only if we are satisfied that the family has been traced, that adequate reception arrangements are in place and that there will be adequate longer-term care for them. If they have been victims of sexual exploitation, their communities may refuse to welcome them back, and we need to help victims reintegrate into their communities and to deal sensitively with some of the cultural assumptions that can prevent that.

Ms Keeble

Will my hon. Friend deal with the need for data sharing? Children move around frequently and sometimes social services will not help them or will say that they cannot find them. It is a pressing issue to provide the safeguards that are needed.

Mr. Browne

If my hon. Friend will bear with me for a moment, I will come on to the issue of fast tracking and data sharing. At this point, I want to deal with the meeting that I had last week because it represents what my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre referred to as a pioneering international approach. It also relates to the point made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham about contact with social services in the originating countries.

In my view, the concept of adopting an international approach through professionalised social services is a very attractive proposition. It presents a significant challenge to the Government to generate co-operation with other countries with a view to putting in place the level of co-operation necessary to ensure that appropriate standards are applied across international boundaries. The proposition put to me last week was substantially the work of Lawrence Chester, whom I know from other work that he has done with refugees. He has a significant reputation not only in respect of social work, but of refugees. He was supported by the British Association of Social Workers, represented by Ian Johnston and John Metcalf, and by the Children's Legal Centre represented by George Lane.

It was an exciting and interesting proposal that will require further discussion in government and across government here in the UK and with interested non-governmental organisations. We will need to develop the approach in the UK before we can consider taking it further internationally, and it may be some considerable time before the exciting proposal becomes a reality, but it is worthwhile work and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre and others for bringing it to me. I will take it as far forward as I can, which might provide a vehicle for taking forward some of the points raised by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham.

May I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North that I am indeed aware of how important speed of decision making is to children? As she rightly says, a comparatively short wait may not be a long time in an adult's life, but it may be an eternity in a child's life. I fully understand that. Taking decisions about children with appropriate speed is part of the process of dealing with children sensitively and appropriately. That is what I expect the immigration and nationality directorate to do.

My hon. Friend must accept, however, the requirement to balance the obvious need for a speedy decision in cases of applications made by children against ensuring that any areas of concern about the child's welfare are fully explored with the relevant agencies before the decision is reached. Having spent the best part of a quarter of a century of my professional life—before I became a professional politician—working in child law matters and child protection, I am very much aware of the dangers of taking decisions about children far too quickly. Unfortunately, there are some outstanding examples of that in the history of child protection in the UK. Not enough time has been taken fully to explore with the relevant agencies the appropriate issues on child protection.

My hon. Friend can rest assured that I am conscious of the need for that balance and for the need for speed—appropriate speed when dealing with children. I ask her to accept my assurance that the Home Office and the immigration and nationality directorate are working to ensure that the desire for speed does not operate against the best interests of the child.

My expectation is that the immigration and nationality directorate will carry out that work to the standard of the duty of care towards children that arises from our obligations under the UN convention on the rights of the child. Although the UK has a reservation in the convention enabling us to apply such legislation as we deem necessary in the interests of immigration control, we have regard to the convention in the formulation of policy and practice relating to children arriving or resident in the UK. The key obligations are to act in the child's best interests, to take all appropriate steps to protect the child from all forms of abuse or neglect, and to provide special protection and assistance to children deprived of their family environment, for whatever reason.

My hon. Friend asked me to reassure her specifically that social services will ensure that data are shared appropriately. In cases relating to children, I have met agencies whose approach has seemed to be more about data protection than about child protection. In my view, when a balance must be struck between the protection of the child and the protection of data, the obligation of an agency is to err on the side of the protection of the child. I would expect that, insofar as I have responsibility for issues relating to child protection, those who are directly accountable to me will apply that rule at all times. I am not responsible for other areas of Government policy, but I would be astonished if other Ministers took a different view. I hope that that reassurance is sufficient for my hon. Friend.

Tim Loughton

I am greatly encouraged by the Minister's comments about data. He mentioned working on a joint international initiative, which is essential. It is now more than four years since Victoria Climbié came to this country from the Ivory Coast and more than five years since we had a spate of girls coming from Nigeria and Sierra Leone into west Sussex through Gatwick airport, who were subsequently adopted into the sex trade in northern Italy. What has happened in the past two years to ensure that international social services are working to ensure that those children do not get on the plane in the first place? If there is a problem with sending children back, are international social services working with the communities in those countries to make it safe for them to go back? If there is any question of those children being used for illicit purposes in this country, their best home must be with or close to their families and communities of origin. I would have hoped that a bit more had been done by now.

Mr. Browne

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman's analysis of the challenges and priorities. I have set out the extent of my knowledge about international co-operation. I do not have detailed knowledge about that other area of Government responsibility, but I will undertake to have his questions answered appropriately and I will write to him. I do not know off the top of my head just how robust international social services are in the areas that he mentions. He is entitled to a response to those questions, but it is not the Government's responsibility to construct social service support in other parts of the world. It is our responsibility to ensure that those people who come to our shores receive an appropriate response and that the necessary risk assessment is made. I hope that I have been able to reassure the House that significant progress has been made in the legislative structure and in the practical operation of that protection, but challenges remain and there is still work to be done. That work will be carried on not only by me, in the Home Office, but by other Ministers who share with me responsibility for children in the UK. I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives a written response from me on those issues, and I shall lodge the letter in the Library.

I have outlined briefly the Government's strategy to combat trafficking, but it must be accepted that we cannot do that work alone. We need to continue to work across traditional organisational boundaries. We must work with our EU partners and beyond the EU. We must work with the voluntary sector and with communities both in this country and abroad to address some of the wider cultural issues behind trafficking.

I hope that through innovative operations, such as Operation Paladin Child, and by bringing together professionals from different backgrounds and organisations we can continue that work. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North for giving me this opportunity to set out—at some length, due to the extra time available—what the Government are doing in this field and I hope that she is reassured by my remarks.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Ten o'clock.