HL Deb 22 January 2002 vol 630 cc1379-82

The Earl of Sandwich asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they will introduce legislation to combat the increase in trafficking of women and children into the United Kingdom for sexual exploitation and domestic labour.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, the United Kingdom is at the forefront of the international effort to tackle the heinous crime of trafficking in human beings. We have already signed the United Nations protocol on the prevention and suppression of trafficking and negotiated a European Union framework decision on trafficking for the purposes of sexual and labour exploitation. We are committed to introducing domestic legislation to give effect to those measures.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I declare an interest as a council member of Anti-Slavery International, which, as the Minister knows, is presently working hard on this subject to help the Home Office. Does the Minister agree that, according to Europol, the trafficking of women and children is increasing quite substantially in Europe and yet the United Kingdom has virtually no legislation, nor any planned, on the subject? I understand that some East European countries have such legislation. The Minister has spoken of the framework decision. Surely the European framework decision does nothing to enforce the law nor to protect the victims of such trafficking.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, a good amount of legislation is already on the statute book in respect of some of these issues. They are covered by several sections of the Sexual Offences Act 1956. Also a review of sexual offences was set up in 1999. A considerable amount of enforcement work is carried on at the present time with Project Reflex which was set up in March 2000 and which involves the National Crime Squad and the Immigration Service working together. There have been investigations and there have been prosecutions. However, there are gaps in the legislation.

The decision on the framework document will be expected at the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 28th February. Legislation covering offences set out in that document will have to be introduced within two years of the adoption of the framework decision. While I cannot say whether there will be legislation this year or next, once we have signed up to that decision we shall be committed to legislate within two years. That implies that if legislation is not brought forward in this parliamentary Session it will be in the next.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the 66 children who have gone missing from West Sussex social services' register, probably into child trafficking, were all unaccompanied child asylum seekers? What can the Government do to protect unaccompanied child asylum seekers?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, a large number of unaccompanied children arrive as asylum seekers. In regard to the children in West Sussex, they were in the care of the social services department; they were not in immigration detention. It is alleged that members of their families collected them. We have carried out investigations. Following Project Reflex, from the end of February a new unit with dedicated teams will be fully operational at Gatwick and at Heathrow. It will be a combination of the Immigration Service and the National Crime Squad. As far as we are aware, investigations took place into what happened to those children. Some 200 were identified, but despite arrests, no prosecutions were issued due to kick of evidence and the unwillingness of the victims to give evidence.

Lord Renton

My Lords, although, as the noble Lord said, legislation may be desirable, have the Government taken legal advice as to whether such a form of trafficking can be prosecuted as a form of slavery?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, trafficking, as opposed to smuggling, is a form of slavery. The definition of trafficking includes the exploitation of a person at a later date for sexual exploitation or labour market exploitation. That is not the issue in relation to the gap in the legislation. There are many Acts already on the statute book under which we can charge people if they are involved in facilitating that. We have carried out prosecutions. There have been 15 arrests in relation to facilitators; there have been seven convictions in the UK and six overseas. At the moment in this country trials relating to these offences are pending following investigations that have taken place since 2000.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, will the Minister join me in commending the West Sussex social services department for at least exercising its powers under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 to provide safe accommodation for children thought to be at risk of trafficking? Will he also exonerate West Sussex social services from any blame for the children who have gone missing from its care? They were probably abducted and went, against their will, into the hands of the traffickers. Does the Minister consider that it is necessary to provide similar services in local authority areas that are situated around international airports? Will the Government make money available for that purpose?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I hope that nothing that I have said has implied any criticism of West Sussex social services department. I did not intend to imply criticism. In relation to the children, it operated on the best available information. A young unaccompanied child arriving at an airport creates a difficult situation. Last summer I was present on one occasion when that happened. I sat in on the conversations with the Immigration Service and the social services who were being contacted because they could not be certain about the person who was collecting the child. Enormous care is taken in that respect. I hope that our new operation at Gatwick and at Heathrow—funded from SR2000—which will be fully operational later this month, and which will, in due course, be rolled out across the country, will meet the concerns of the noble Lord.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, while I welcome the reply that the Minister has given to my noble friend, can he confirm that the distinction that he has drawn between smuggling and trafficking in answer to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Renton, will be incorporated into the legislation when it is eventually laid before the House? Can he also confirm that so far we have perhaps underestimated the size of the problem? Notwithstanding the obvious scandal of children being seized from social services, regardless of who is to blame, in the light of reports by people like Carron Somerset, the recent comments of the head of the Vice Squad in London, the reports of Anti-Slavery International and the investigative reports recently undertaken by the BBC, does he agree that this is just the tip of a terrible iceberg?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, that may be the case, but without the evidence it is difficult to put numbers on it. We simply do not know. Regarding the definitional aspects of "trafficking" and "smuggling", we do currently distinguish between them, and I am certain that the new legislation will do so. Last week the Home Secretary announced that forecasting legislation will come before your Lordships' House in the near future. The penalties for those involved in trafficking will be raised from a maximum of 10 years to 14 years, in order to he on a par with those for drug trafficking.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, does the Minister accept that not all children who come to this country and are exploited are exploited by complete strangers? What are the Government's plans to protect children, such as Victoria Climbié, who come to this country and are exploited by relatives, however distant?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, yes, that is the case. People are exploited even for their social security benefits. I say to the noble Baroness that the best thing to do is to await the outcome of the public inquiry. I am sure that that will have recommendations which I hope—and everyone would trust—will be speedily acted upon.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, welcome as the news is of the Government's work to help this problem internationally and in Europe, not least of the problems that we face—which of course to a degree facilitates trafficking—is the relative ease with which in the past people have entered the country? They are perhaps not adequately checked or controlled or it is not made sure that they have a proper place to go to. If we tightened up that aspect of our administration, perhaps we would actually do a great deal to restrict the possibility of trafficking within this country.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the noble Lord in some ways is raising a wider question. I do not want to hide behind the general reply, but many of these issues will be covered in the fairly extensive White Paper which the Government will be presenting to the House early next month.

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