HL Deb 23 March 2004 vol 659 cc589-92

2.49 p.m.

Lord Hylton asked Her Majesty's Government:

What protection should be afforded to victims of people trafficking, who have reached England and Wales, both before and after the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill becomes law.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, in February 2000, the Government set out their comprehensive strategy for addressing the trafficking of men, women and children in the White Paper Secure Borders, Safe Haven. The strategy recognises the need for a multifaceted response to the abhorrent trade in human beings. The provisions in the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill support a continued commitment to the fight against those who would seek to exploit the vulnerable.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his Answer. Have the Government noted that no fewer than 32 London boroughs acknowledge having a problem with trafficked children? Will the many facets quoted by the noble Lord include reimbursement of local authorities for all their protection costs? As to adults, will the criteria for the existing Poppy Project be widened, so that women do not have to suffer sexual abuse before they can receive the help that they need?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am interested In the noble Lord's request for funding on behalf of 32 London boroughs. It must be remembered that London boroughs already receive support through the grant formula, and that the grant formula is finely tuned to take account of pressures on spending, particularly in social services. We keep the formula under careful review, and we listen carefully to what local authorities say on those matters. The criteria for the Poppy Project and Eaves Housing are right. The pilot project has proved to be of immense value. It has been extended until April 2005, and we will need to take careful account of the use that is made of that project in looking at the criteria in the future, particularly if the project is to continue beyond 2005.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, although I welcome the support that the Home Office has given to the Poppy Project, is it not limited to women victims of trafficking for prostitution? What help, other than the Poppy Project, is the Home Office giving to victims of trafficking for other purposes, particularly to children? Does the Answer that the noble Lord gave to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, mean that there is no special help for any local authority that must cope with a large number of trafficked children? Is the noble Lord aware that it is not only a problem in London, but in other parts of the country also? It is particularly a problem in areas adjacent to airports, where unaccompanied children are finding themselves dumped on to social services departments. Will the Government at least ask local authorities to make returns so that we know the size of this problem and the number of trafficked children that are entering the country?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, this is a sensitive issue. We listen carefully to what local authorities say. We have been working with the Department of Health to ensure that we have a code of practice that provides guidance in this area. If there are particular spending pressures, no doubt the Local Government Association and those local authorities with particular problems I understand that those with airports adjacent have particular problems—will make representations. As I described, the Government's approach is multi-faceted. It concentrates on prevention and enforcement, but it also ensures that resources are available to help those voluntary organisations that provide facilities to assist where there is evidence of trafficked children.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, can the Minister give us an estimate of the numbers involved in this trafficking?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, by the very clandestine nature of the operation, it is hard to give meaningful estimates. Our estimates suggest that anything between 140 and 1,400 persons are trafficked each year, but that is only a very rough estimate. It is hard to seek returns on that.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

My Lords, the Minister referred to the multi-faceted approach of the Government to this serious problem. Within that approach, does he agree that the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill, which is currently before this House, should give protection to people who are so cruelly trafficked? If so, will he give a commitment to support an amendment that I have tabled to the Bill that will come up on Thursday, which achieves that objective? As the noble Lord knows, I am always ready to help the Government.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am always enormously grateful when the noble Baroness offers her help and assistance. We always have an open mind on these matters, but without the precise wording of the amendment in front of me—I understand the political point that the noble Baroness is making—I obviously cannot give such a commitment. We have a robust strategy in place that is based on co-operation and working with agencies across the world, particularly in Europe. It is based on ensuring that local authorities are effective in the work that they carry out. It is also based on a case-by-case understanding of the problem as it presents itself.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, in line with the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, is the noble Lord aware that Clause 4 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill was well received for its mention of offences? Can he explain why it does not also underline the need for protection, as the noble Baroness mentioned with regard to the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we have gone some way on the issue of protection. The noble Lord will know better than I that the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 dealt with that issue. We have put in place further measures to penalise traffickers since then—the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and Clause 4 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill—so that sexual exploitation and labour exploitation issues are covered and we hit hard those people who deal in the abhorrent trade of human trafficking.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that social services departments offer adequate supervision of the victims of trafficking in their care? Is he aware of cases involving West Sussex County Council, where children have disappeared without trace? Is there evidence that they are further trafficked for the purpose of prostitution?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we have discussed on several occasions in your Lordships' House the West Sussex case and the allegations of disappearance. An operation was undertaken to investigate that. Sadly, the investigation did not result in arrests or prosecutions, but there have been other instances, particularly in the UK, where useful co-operation has taken place. A number of high profile prosecutions have taken place; some 37 since 2002 when the first phalanx of new offences was introduced. As to our general level of satisfaction with local authority performance, we are satisfied that they are working hard, but there is, as ever, plenty of scope for improvement. That is why we are working hard with them to ensure that we can identify the problem when it first presents itself.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord has mentioned twice the Government's -multi-faceted response". Will he explain what he means?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, it boils down to ensuring that you have all angles covered—or as many angles as you can—whether it is dealing with immigration across Europe, relations between agencies in the UK, or ensuring that the police are working with social services. It is a strategy that works at many levels.