HL Deb 29 November 2004 vol 667 cc262-4

2.58 p.m.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno asked Her Majesty's Government:

What support they are giving to a European convention on human trafficking which would uphold the rights of the victims of trafficking.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, we are participating fully in the negotiations on the draft Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. We support the development of an effective convention which provides protection and support for victims alongside proactive measures to prevent and disrupt trafficking activities. Our commitment to tackling this problem is clear. We have put in place a range of measures to tackle the trafficking and to protect victims. We continue to develop our strategies in this area.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno

My Lords, I welcome the Minister's Answer. Therefore, can I take comfort from the fact that the Government are pursuing every possible avenue to bring this matter to an end? Will the submission made by the Government be made available to Members of this House? Will the Government also consider the possibility of giving refugee status to victims of trafficking?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I certainly reassure the noble Lord that we are taking every avenue to bring this matter to an end. The noble Lord will know that we took legislative measures in the previous Session and, indeed, further measures will be taken in this Session.

I hear what the noble Lord says about the possibility of victims of trafficking being dealt with as refugees. Noble Lords will know that we have continued to look at individual cases on their merits. There are cases where asylum is granted and other measures are taken to give comfort and support to those who are subject to this virulent and vicious crime.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, when will the Government find time to ratify the Palermo protocol?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we have taken many of the steps in relation to the Palermo protocol. Noble Lords will know that we have implemented the effects regarding the law. We brought in a number of offences last time. The Sexual Offences Act 2003, which came into force in May of this year, introduces comprehensive offences.

On the protocol there is one outstanding issue with which we have not yet been able to deal. That is the execution of foreign requests for the seizure of instrumentalities. We intend to address that issue in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill which will come before your Lordships very soon.

Baroness Sharpies

My Lords, does the noble Baroness have an estimate of the number of people involved in this ghastly trafficking?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, it is very difficult to pinpoint the numbers. In 2000 we had an estimate of between 142 and 1,420. Many have sought to use the larger figure, but we cannot be accurate. In relation to the POPPY Project that the Home Office has funded, we have had 169 referrals. Our strategy is, first, to look at prevention on an international basis and, secondly, to make sure that we have in place the sort of support and identifying instruments that we need in order to make sure that we properly monitor this issue.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, I am delighted that there is discussion on the convention itself. Are there discussions on a common Europe-wide policy in dealing with those who traffick in human beings, particularly since it seems to be more lucrative than trafficking in drugs?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we have. The noble Lord will know that on the current convention, one of the huge issues is how we prevent trafficking and how we work together to make sure that it is identified. We have had a number of very good successes. Your Lordships will know of Reflex, which has been brought together to deal with this matter. Moreover, internationally we have dealt with a number of significant issues. For instance, we have signed the European framework decision on trafficking for labour and sexual exploitation. We have worked bilaterally with a number of countries. We have a very good Reflex arrangement with Romania. That is a very good example of a successful overseas initiative.

At the beginning of 2002 the UK and Romania agreed to establish a central intelligence unit, which was set up in April 2002. During its first year of operational activity 105 criminal groups were identified, 48 were disrupted and 90 individuals were arrested in relation to immigration or trafficking offences. We are rolling out this sort of approach with other countries, including the Czech Republic. It is certainly an issue that we must deal with internationally, robustly and together.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I was glad to hear what the Minister said about the prevention of trafficking. However, will she consider whether there should be better protection of witnesses in order to secure convictions? In particular will she reflect on the time required for victims of trafficking to make up their minds whether they can give evidence?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, is absolutely right in saying that witness protection is important. We are looking very progressively at those matters. In November 2003 we launched the National Witness Mobility Scheme to assist with over 120 referrals from police and local authorities of vulnerable and intimidated witnesses, some of whom were victims of human trafficking. In addition, the Office for Criminal Justice Reform is implementing witness care units throughout the country as part of the No Witness, No Justice scheme. They will provide assistance and advice to all types of witnesses, which again would include human trafficking cases.

We are looking very creatively at the length of time that individuals may need in order to make up their minds whether to help in criminal prosecutions of those who traffick. Those are important issues which are exciting a lot of proper attention and are being addressed.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, with regard to the estimates of those involved in human trafficking, what proportion results from immigrants from Europe or via Europe and how many come here direct?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I can give your Lordships our figures on the POPPY scheme. Noble Lords will know that that is just a pilot, but it gives us an indication. Of those we dealt with, 25 per cent were from eastern Europe, 13 per cent were from south-east Asia, 12 per cent were from western Europe and 2 per cent were from Africa. It is quite clear from that breadth of activity that this is not a single-country issue; it is regrettably a phenomenon that we are starting to see across the world. We have to take robust action together internationally to prevent it and to stop certain areas becoming attraction areas for these people. We need to make sure that those matters are very clearly understood.

Forward to