HC Deb 15 September 2004 vol 424 cc472-95WH

2 pm

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon) (Lab)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate the international trafficking of women, which is a serious and ongoing crime. The trafficking of human beings, whether for exploitation in work, the sex industry or for any other purpose is a tragic and complex human rights abuse. Hundreds of thousands of people are traded globally every year. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 120,000 women are trafficked each year, of whom 75 per cent. are under 25. Too many lives are ruined by trafficking, and whether it affects one person or 1 million, the trade in humanity must be tackled.

Women are particularly vulnerable to that slavery-like practice, largely because of the persistent inequalities that they face in status and opportunities worldwide. Internationally, Human Rights Watch has reported consistent patterns in the trafficking of women. Coercive tactics, including deception, fraud, intimidation, isolation, the threat and use of physical force and debt bondage are used to control women. An example quoted to me was of a woman who came to Britain to raise money for her sister's cancer treatment. She worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Half her earnings were taken as rent for the flat that she used, and the other half to pay off the £23,000 debt that she was charged to travel to this country. She had nothing for her sister and no hope of a future.

Only last week, the London Evening Standard ran headlines about a journalist being offered two young women for £6,000 each, to do with as he wished. That proposition was made not in some seedy bazaar but a London pub, by a pimp responsible for, in some cases, luring eastern European women to Britain with promises of work, love or marriage, and in others, for kidnapping them. The implication that that is acceptable in the London community, or anywhere else for that matter simply cannot be accepted.

The recent "Sex in the city" study carried out by the Poppy Project, which supports women trying to free themselves from the sex trade, revealed that there are more than 8,000 women working in the sex trade in London, of whom 80 per cent. are from south-east Asia and eastern Europe. Many of them are prey to those complex methods of coercion and control, yet the Poppy Project has just 25 places available to help women escaping their entrapment. Women on that waiting list, who are desperate to escape a life of slavery and misery, have to be told, "Wait. We cannot afford to help you yet." I would be grateful to know whether the Government might consider better supporting such projects.

There are concerns over alleged complicity among members of the international community. There are reports of widespread trafficking in Kosovo, with the involvement of peacekeepers, which is a major concern. There are also reports alleging that in Bosnia a 15-year-old girl was given as a 21st birthday present to a US soldier and … raped in turn by men with American, Canadian, British, Russian and French accents". Deceptive methods of recruitment have been reported. An orphanage in Romania received visits from a social worker offering apprenticeship programmes for adolescent girls, who were then taken away and forced into prostitution. Corrupt officials, who facilitate the trade, accept bribes to falsify documents and to provide protection, allow the trafficking to thrive. Of course, if there were no market for sex, much of the trafficking would not take place, so the more that we can change the culture to make it unacceptable to buy sex, the more women such as those I have mentioned will be protected.

Across the world, many Governments treat trafficked persons as illegal aliens, criminals, or both, which exposes those people to further abuse. For example, Thai trafficking victims in Japan are regularly detained as illegal aliens and deported with a five-year ban on reentering the country. By targeting the victims and ignoring the perpetrators, states allow the abuses to continue.

I congratulate the Government on taking some action on the matter, including, in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, creating several trafficking offences carrying penalties of up to 14 years in prison. I hope that we will hear from the Minister not only about the action that the Government are taking to minimise the involvement in trafficking, but that they have taken and will take to raise those issues with other countries in Europe and further afield.

All human trafficking is for exploitative work. Consider the 20 migrant workers drowned while working for a pitiful wage in ghastly conditions as cockle pickers in Morecambe, or the sex trade that, often through links to drugs, brings an early death to many. All over the world, rich people who are ill are prepared to pay huge sums of money for the chance of a normal life. Equally, desperately poor people are driven to sell a kidney or other organs as a way of feeding their families. Last year in southern India, 13 members of a gang responsible for selling more than 50 kidneys for transplants were arrested. Into this trade have stepped unscrupulous brokers, prepared to trick people into parting with an organ, often for a paltry fee.

In sub-Saharan Africa, there is a horrific trade in virgins, who are being sold because some people are told having sex with them is a cure for AIDS. The horrors do not end there. Last month in Nigeria, 30 people were arrested after the discovery of corpses and human skulls in a fetish shrine. In some parts of Africa, there is a lucrative trade in human skins, which can fetch up to $10,000. Again in Nigeria, we have had reports of the trafficking of women by an international ring using terror tactics on young people through the use of voodoo. One woman told Amnesty International: I always tried to open the door, but the men were always outside the door. I was scared. I always hear the voices. Such women cannot be just immediately returned to their countries to be trafficked again. They need some support, so that they are strong enough to avoid being re-trafficked, and so that they in turn may help to prosecute the traffickers.

This is an international trade, so we need to give protection to trafficked women by working with our European and other international partners. Within Europe, there is an opportunity for binding minimum standards for the protection and support of trafficked people to be ratified this December when the Council of Europe's ad hoc committee on action against trafficking in human beings drafts its European convention against trafficking.

I urge the Government to address the key issues identified by Amnesty. They need to be dealt with in order properly to protect trafficked women and others. The next meeting on that is on Monday where the Home Office will be represented. In addition to pushing these issues at opportunities that the Foreign Office has, I hope that the Minister can pass on relevant concerns to the Home Office.

The first of those is the care and support of survivors. Where an adult has been identified as a victim of trafficking, their access to assistance—medical care, safe housing, counselling, information on their legal rights and so on—must not be made contingent on their willingness to testify against traffickers, particularly as doing so may put family in their country of origin in danger.

We should be willing to support people trafficked in that way because it may give them the support they need to help to prosecute the traffickers. The current draft only allows victims of trafficking "emergency medical treatment", whereas the UN protocol says that more should be done. It is surely justified to give the health support necessary for conditions arising out of the trafficking.

Secondly, we must make allowance for suitable periods of recovery and reflection. Victims of trafficking need a sufficient reflection period temporarily to regularise their immigration status and give them an opportunity to receive advice and assistance, to begin to recover from their experiences and to make an informed decision about whether they wish to co-operate with the authorities in prosecuting their traffickers. Amnesty argues for a reflection period of at least three months. Without that period, victims will face immediate deportation. That is not in the interests of the victim, who may be re-trafficked, or the police, who will lose the opportunity to gather valuable information and possible witness testimony that will help to secure prosecutions and to combat trafficking in the long term.

Reflection periods are only given to those who are considered likely to be trafficked persons, as identified by the police, appropriate non-governmental organisations, or immigration officers. They have operated successfully for several years in the Netherlands, where three months is allowed, and Belgium, where 45 days are allowed. Norway has recently introduced a reflection period of 45 days. Italy suggests a reasonable reflection period would be as long as six months, but its laws go further and offer residency permits to victims of trafficking on the basis that the traffickers pose a continued risk to them.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD)

The hon. Lady raises an interesting point about the reflection period, to which I hope to return. Does she agree that the provision of a reflection period has resulted in more convictions being brought in those countries? That is an important reason to provide such a period.

Ms Drown

Yes. Particularly in Italy, people are satisfied that what might seem a compassionate and long-term approach to dealing with trafficking victims has resulted in increased prosecutions. It is for that reason that I hope that we can agree a minimum reflection period of at least three months across Europe. That may be particularly important for women because those involved in the sex trade often face rejection by their families and communities on returning to their countries. Finding a way forward for them is a key concern.

Just last night, I received a fax from the UK representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and it highlighted some of these issues. One might not normally think that trafficked women had a case for refugee status in this country, but UNHCR points out that, under the 1951 convention, there are certain circumstances in which refugee status should be considered. Indeed, UNHCR hosted a seminar this February in London, at which there were representatives from the Home Office, as well as NGOs. One immigration adjudicator who presented a paper at that seminar looked at the reasons why trafficked persons should be considered as refugees. A paper is now being produced on that to try to get some general rules and guidelines. I hope that the Government will seriously consider that as a way of ensuring that trafficked people are able to qualify for refugee status, under defined conditions.

We have a duty to investigate allegations of human rights abuse and UNHCR points out the very serious human rights abuse involved in trafficking. At some point, trafficking might even qualify as a crime against humanity—it is that serious. We need to bring the perpetrators of those crimes, including state as well as non-state actors, to justice. I would like to hear from the Minister how often such issues, particularly concerning trafficked women, are raised at an international level and whether there is a willingness to take action to tackle this appalling trade at a wider level than the European level. I also want to know whether any funding or initiatives to combat the international trafficking of women are coming out of the Foreign Office's human rights, democracy and good governance programme. Trafficking is a serious and growing problem and the victims do not deserve to have their lives destroyed by it. I urge the Government to do all that they can to tackle the problem, both here and abroad.

2.12 pm
Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) on securing this vital debate. It is important for us to keep discussing this issue.

Last year, I attended a showing in Portcullis House by UNICEF of the film "Lilya 4-Ever". I do not know whether anyone else here saw that film. The Guardian called it an uncompromisingly bleak, devastating powerful study of Lilya…a poverty-stricken teenage girl abandoned in a crumbling Russian town who was lured into a hellish world of forced prostitution, rape and imprisonment by the promise of a better life and job in the west. She was abandoned by her mother, who was also enticed to the west by a smooth-talking man; we do not know what happened to the mother. After being left on the streets in the Russian town, with no help from her aunt, Lilya was sweet talked by someone into going to Sweden. It was a harrowing and graphic depiction of the stark reality for thousands of women every day. This poor young girl, who had been abandoned, was persuaded that there was a new life in the west and ended up leading, as The Guardian described it, a hellish existence.

This debate is timely. I had no sooner seen it on the Order Paper than I opened my post and got my latest Amnesty magazine, which had a leading article on the explosive international growth in trafficking. Hon. Members and, I am sure, the Minister, can expect to be lobbied by Amnesty members urging that our UK representatives support binding minimum standards in the proposed Council of Europe convention on trafficking. I fully support the proposals outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon, to which I will return later, and urge our Government representatives to push these issues at next week's meeting.

Any hon. Member who turns on Channel 4 on 7 and 14 October is bound to be moved to action by a drama called "Sex Traffic". I understand that it shows Elena and Vara trafficked into forced prostitution from their home in Moldavia. There is a quote from that film in the Amnesty magazine. A 21-year-old Moldavian woman says that she eventually arrived in a bar in Kosovo and was

locked inside and forced into prostitution. In the bar I was never paid, I could not go out by myself, the owner became more and more violent as the weeks went by; he was beating me and raping me and the other girls. We were his 'property' he said. By buying us he had bought the right to beat us, rape us, starve us, force us to have sex with clients. Another woman trafficked into Kosovo told Amnesty:

I was desperate… because we were so poor… I couldn't live any longer on my grandmother's pension, so I said that I'd better go somewhere else where I could work hard and earn some money to help my family and my brothers. I think that anybody who watches that film will be moved into wishing to take up this issue. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to take a look at that film and at the latest Amnesty report on the position in Kosovo and the way in which the international situation has led to the mushrooming of prostitution and trafficking into that country, because there are some very serious issues that we need to ensure that we are on top of.

What is trafficking? I will come back to the United Nations definition of that, but Secretary-General Kofi Annan said: Women and children are not property, but human beings. The international community should declare, loudly and more strongly than ever, that we are all members of the human family. Slavery simply has no place in a world of human rights"— and trafficking is slavery. It is easy to think of it as something else but it is not; it is slavery—there can be no other way to describe this gross violation of human rights.

Internationally organised and highly lucrative, the crime of human trafficking has increased to the extent that it has become one of the largest sources of profit from crime along with drug trafficking and arms smuggling. In 1998, the UN estimated that this trade in human misery generated around $7 billion a year but latest studies suggest that the figure could now be as high as $12 billion.

It is sad but interesting that there is still a need for Anti-Slavery International. Established in 1839, it is the world's oldest international human rights organisation, and it has to continue campaigning into this century against this form of slavery. The Salvation Army is another organisation that was campaigning in the 19th century. I am sure that hon. Members will recall that in 1885 it caused an outcry in Victorian Britain by buying a young girl—a 13-year-old called Eliza Armstrong—from her mother for £5 to expose the trade in child prostitutes. It is interesting, although not totally relevant to the current debate, that that was what led Parliament to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16. In 1885, child prostitutes were bought and sold on London's streets and the Salvation Army was campaigning about that. Today, women and children are still being trafficked across the world and treated as slaves.

With regard to the figures, it is hard to get exact estimates, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon mentioned, but the International Organisation for Migration has reported that between 700,000 and 2 million women and children are trafficked across international borders each year. Few countries remain unaffected, either as a country of origin or as a destination for the women who become victims. Tragically, this has become yet another global phenomenon, with those trafficked forced to work in the sex trade, prostitution, pornography and child pornography and also as farm labourers, exploited labour in sweat shops, in catering and as domestics—as slaves in people's homes.

The Protection Project based at Johns Hopkins university in the United States of America estimates that, over the past 10 years, the number of women and children who have been trafficked has multiplied, so that it is now on a par with the number of Africans who were enslaved in the 16th and 17th centuries—that is an extraordinary statistic. It is a scandal that in this century we have not eliminated slavery but it just takes a different form.

Arising from the Poppy Project, which has already been referred to, Superintendent Chris Bradford of the Metropolitan police explained some of the problems in escaping their pimps that women who are exploited and arrive in the UK have. He says that it is almost impossible: They can't speak the language; they've had passports and travel documents taken away from them. They don't know what to do or who to see, and pimps tell them that they're paying the police, and that we will just return them if they come to us. They're not necessarily locked up, but there's the constant threat that they or their families will be 'sorted out'. However, returning home can be equally difficult because of the stigma that the women can face, and because they have often been driven out by a lack of employment opportunities and money in the first place. Several of the women helped by the Poppy Project were re-trafficked after their return to their countries of origin. What we do when we find such people in our country or in other countries and when deciding whether they should stay or be sent back are serious issues. One woman who was re-trafficked was sold by her father for a second time just days after the police returned her home

The women will face other threats. Many trafficked girls and women will be told that their families or children will be harmed or murdered if they try to escape or tell anyone. Others are told that their families have found out what they are doing and want nothing more to do with them. My hon. Friend mentioned the fact that a woman can become a persona non grata if she goes back home and that her family can be threatened by those who try to make her stay in the business.

There are different interpretations of what trafficking involves. The internationally recognised definition is set out in the UN protocol: Trafficking in person shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs. Trafficking is not limited to sexual exploitation; it also takes other forms of labour exploitation. In their study, Dr. Liz Kelly and Linda Regan of the university of North London, as it was then called, identify the ways in which women can be recruited for trafficking abroad, and they are not always straightforward.

There can be complete coercion through abduction or kidnapping. It may be rare for women to be trafficked through those entirely illegal methods, but that does happen. Recruitment can be done by deception through promises of legitimate employment in the UK or elsewhere. There can also be deception through half-truths—telling someone that there may be employment in the entertainment industry, dancing or stripping. Some women will be made aware that they will be working in prostitution and may have put themselves at the mercy of traffickers just to get to western Europe. However, they will not have been made aware of the extent to which they will be intimidated, exploited and controlled by those who seek to traffic or to smuggle them abroad.

My hon. Friend gave the example of the woman who came to get money for her sister's cancer treatment. Everything that she made went towards repaying the sum charged to get here and her rent. Women come here with a completely false idea of what is going to happen, and the life that they were promised disappears. The final recruitment method, seen in central and eastern Europe, is to place ads in media sources that claim that there is a well paying job available through an employment agency, which may or may not exist. The person goes abroad and life is very different once they get there. They are put to work of a kind that they did not anticipate.

Trafficking is complex. There are many ways in which it happens and many issues that we need to take account of as we try to help the victims and prosecute those responsible for the crime. What should we do about it? The problem is international and requires international action. Many countries have little or no effective anti-trafficking legislation and no legislation to protect and to support the victims and families or to prosecute the perpetrators.

I welcome the action taken by our Government through the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and through provisions in immigration and asylum legislation to tackle this pernicious crime in the UK. However, will the Minister say what progress has been made in encouraging more countries to ratify the UN protocol, to ensure that legislation to protect women from this heinous trade is incorporated in domestic law around the world? Will he say what the latest position is on UK ratification?

Again, I urge the Minister to consider and to push the proposals for inclusion in the Council of Europe convention made by Amnesty and others. They have come out with a number of proposals, some of which have been gone into in some detail. Will the Minister respond to them? Some may be possible and some may not, but I urge him to consider them all. I am sure that he has.

The first is about ensuring that there is adequate training on how to identify trafficked persons—a great difficulty, not just in this area but in relation to many people who come here without documentation. That is clearly a difficult issue.

The second issue, of reflection periods, has been discussed at some length.

Thirdly, trafficked persons need to have access to a full range of assistance, protection and support to enable them to make informed decisions about their future. Will the Minister let us know what progress is being made on providing services in this country? I am not sure whether there is more than one safe house in this country to assist people. Will the Minister tell us what services are being provided and what possibility there is for us to do more?

Fourthly, there are issues about the legal status of people who have come into this country and whether trafficked persons will be held criminally liable for illegal entry into Council of Europe member states or involvement in unlawful activities that are the consequence of a crime being committed against them. There is also the question of risk assessments being carried out by trained officials before any trafficked person is repatriated.

The final request from Amnesty is that victims involved in legal proceedings or at risk of abuse, stigmatisation or re-trafficking if repatriated should have rights of residence or asylum. I know that that is a difficult issue but I put it on the table as one of the requests from Amnesty to be included in the Council of Europe convention. Therefore, there are a number of issues that I hope the Minister will respond on.

Finally, I extend the subject matter slightly into an area that has been one of my preoccupations in recent months in another campaign that I am involved with. Although the subject of the debate relates to the international trafficking of women, many of those women are very young and there is a huge amount of international trafficking of children. It would be remiss to allow this debate to finish without mentioning that. Many children are procured to be sold into domestic labour as domestic slaves, but the issue that I have been particularly involved with is about the international trafficking of children—and the procurement of children—to be filmed being raped and abused. The abusive images go on the internet for paedophiles to download.

That is a massive issue. Paedophilia used to involve a few people exchanging pictures. Now, one person, who was convicted this year, had downloaded 400,000 images. Every one of those images was of children who had been procured, many of them through international trafficking, to be abused in front of a camera.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con)

The hon. Lady is making a powerful point. Will she join me in condemning those who suggest that the "mere" downloading of child pornography should not normally result in a custodial sentence? The people who download provide the market for the vile trade that she is describing.

Judy Mallaber

I absolutely agree. I also condemn those who say that it is a matter of liberties and the freedom to do what one wants. It is not. There is no freedom to abuse a child. This country is doing well at setting up the mechanisms that we have. A taskforce chaired by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), brings together all the internet service providers and works with crime prevention agencies. The Internet Watch Foundation is doing well at closing down sites in this country.

However, the material is coming from overseas, largely from the United States, where there is not the same cohesion of crime prevention agencies and where some of the questions about whether to jump on the issue and to prosecute people are more difficult. The other area that material is coming from is Belarus, where the Russian mafia are involved. It is massive, international crime and there is a huge amount of money involved—as we said, $7 billion is involved in international trafficking, perhaps more. The business of child prostitution and people being seen on the internet is also a massive exercise.

Ms Drown

I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised the issue and I think that there are more links to the debate. She picked out the issue of children. Does she agree that when somebody becomes 18 or 21—depending on when one says a girl becomes a woman—the fact that the abuse still goes on is just as horrific? Would she like to see the role and the action of the Internet Watch Foundation, which is very good at tackling these problems, extended? We should have equal work going on in relation to the abuse of women, which also happens on the internet.

Judy Mallaber

It needs to be looked at seriously. It is complicated because any abuse of a child and any downloading of a pornographic image of a child is a crime. The Internet Watch Foundation is allowed to look at the sites and Visa, for example, now has a robot that trawls the net for things with its sign on it. It is easy for them to see what is clearly illegal, and to notify the crime prevention authorities. The definition of what is or is not acceptable in relation to older people and sexual exploitation is more problematic in respect of obscenity legislation.

Earlier this year, there was a debate about violent images following the appalling murder case in Brighton. I note that there is currently a debate about definitions and about what should or should not be banned. It is certainly a subject that needs a lot more consideration and work done on it.

One of the promising developments in relation to child porn on the internet is the work that is being done by the internet service providers—belatedly, I have to say, after a lot of pressure. BT, for example, has worked on using technical means to close child porn down. I have met some of the credit companies and PayPal to talk about how to stop the financial mechanisms that make it possible. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon said, to prevent the abuse and trafficking of women and the selling of them into prostitution, we need to change the culture in which it is acceptable. Similarly, we can make it impossible to download such images, which are clearly unacceptable, by looking at technical solutions to resolve the issue.

This is an important debate, and I would be interested to hear the Minister's latest position on the United Nations protocol, the Council of Europe convention and the services that we are providing, as well as any further proposals for taking the issue forward. We have to keep on top of this massive and appalling problem, as so many women and children are facing the most nightmarish lives as a result of this evil trade.

2.32 pm
Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD)

I welcome the debate and congratulate the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) on securing it. I do not know whether she was just quick off the mark with the Amnesty International campaign or had been trying to secure this debate for some time. Either way, I am pleased that we are here today. I am saddened only by the fact that there are so few of us in the Chamber. There seems to be far more interest in the livelihood of the fox than in the livelihood of the many women who are victims of this terrible crime.

I, too, was lucky enough to see the film "Lilya 4-Ever", referred to by the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), and was powerfully struck by it. I urge anybody to go and see it if they have not done so. Since then, I have read a lot about the subject, and that film seemed to describe a fairly typical route from trust in a contact to a woman or child being trafficked and often being subject to sexual abuse. In this film there was a classic progression: a friendship was built up, the young woman, Lilya, went in all innocence to Sweden, and immediately on arrival her passport was taken away and she was locked in a flat and raped. The film became quite graphic at that point, and highlighted the fact that this person was being exploited for sexual reasons. However, we are talking about a child—a very young girl was being exploited. The memory of that film will stay with me for some time.

It is difficult to get a steer on how large this problem is. Some work was done by Dr. Liz Kelly and Linda Regan of the child and women abuse studies unit—in 1999, I think. They estimated that there was anything from between 142 to 1,420 women victims in any one year. However, it is incredibly difficult to obtain the data for several reasons: the activity is underground and I am not sure that we have full knowledge of the extent of it; the lack of anti-trafficking legislation does not help; and there is an understandable reluctance of the victims to report such things, because many of them are not in a position to get themselves out of the situation that they are in. They are in a foreign country, they do not know who to go to or where to go. If they do, they are often sent back to where the original abuse took place. In some communities, there is a strong likelihood that the victim will be sent back to another country.

Little priority seems to be given in government to collecting and researching the data. So, if something is going on that I am not aware of, I would be interested to hear about it. Studies by the International Organisation for Migration claimed that 500,000 women were trafficked into the EU in 1995. Clearly, there is a big difference between 1,420 and 500,000. I am not sure where the IOM got its figures from either. Any clarification regarding that difference would be welcome. I hope that we have not got it so badly wrong in this country that we have totally underestimated the extent of the problem.

The problem is an international one. There is a particular problem in Albania and in many other Balkan countries, and in eastern Europe it is growing. Some African countries also have huge difficulties. I was talking to somebody who had first-hand knowledge of the problem in Nigeria and she said that when one went there, it was fairly obvious which communities were involved in trafficking, because there was a quantum leap in the standard of living.

Given that there is so little opportunity in poor countries to earn money, there is an argument for working with those communities to provide alternatives. It is no good creating righteous indignation—although it is easy and natural to do so when faced with this problem. We must tackle the issue on a global scale. That point has already been highlighted, because, as the hon. Member for Amber Valley said, the estimated profit is $7 billion a year.

Those involved in drug trafficking are becoming increasingly involved in people trafficking and we need to tap into both networks. Last year, I was very moved by "Lilya 4-Ever" and, in September, I decided to visit Italy to see what it was doing about the problem. One thing was clear to me about the difference between the Italian approach and that which the United Kingdom has adopted. Like the UK, Italy has a problem with immigration and with asylum seekers. What impressed me greatly was the fact that it seems to have managed to dissociate the problem of trafficking from that of general immigration. The Government would be well advised to examine the work that it has done, to see whether we could do something similar in this country. Italy is a very right-wing country and if it can be done there, I would like to think that we could do it here.

In Italy, there were a huge number of initiatives to tackle the problem, although they were not at all coordinated. Some of them had national Government money, but often local authorities or non-governmental organisations had decided something needed to be done on their patch. There seemed to be no attempt to regularise the activities—I am not sure that that would be a good thing anyway—and there were many different initiatives.

One initiative in the large cities involved working with sex workers and, more specifically, their clients. As has already been graphically pointed out, the workers often cannot get out of the situation. It was realised that occasionally there was the possibility that a relationship might be built up with a client or that a client might be concerned about the treatment of a particular woman. There was a concerted effort to try to reach the users of prostitutes. I accept what the hon. Member for South Swindon said about changing the culture. I am not sure that, in our culture, it would be easy to do that overnight, but it is a worthy aspiration. Trying to nudge the conscience of people who use prostitutes may be useful, but I am not aware of any similar initiatives in this country.

It is a great pity that a cooling-off period was not included in the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Several attempts were made to introduce one, but they were very much resisted by the Government. I do not know whether there was horror at the prospect of opening the floodgates or of creating a loophole. The result in Italy of using such a cooling-off period has been a greater number of prosecutions. When I visited that country, there was concern that, with the change of Government, there would be a change of emphasis such that women would be forced to show and tell—to identify the criminals—and, if they did not, they would be deported straight away. Research seems to show that if women were given time to build up trust and realise that there was an alternative, they would willingly co-operate.

Ms Drown

One of the reasons that a minimum cooling-off or reflection period of three months is sometimes resisted is that it is seen as arbitrary, and clearly it is. A time is picked, but each woman needs a different amount of time to decide whether they might help with prosecuting the traffickers. That is not to say that if women decide straight away whether they want to co-operate, they do not need to stay for three months. However, allowing that minimum period provides a standard, at least across Europe, and some assurance to the many woman who are trafficked in Europe.

Sandra Gidley

I agree entirely. That time will often be a period of re-focusing for the woman. She can think about what she will do, and, if alternatives are available to her, she will feel more secure about identifying the criminals. If the period is shorter than three months, there is a danger that she might feel that she will have to go back to her community. She may not know anything else, and her community may be where the problem originated. Three months would give a little more time in which to come up with an alternative. The concern is that the women will want to stay in the UK, but the lesson from Italy is that most actually want to return to their home country. Some of the fears are ungrounded.

Ultimately, it is most important to catch the traffickers. In Italy, much work has been done to try to identify Mafia links, such that the lives of some of the people who produced the report were threatened. Also, in this country, some of the early examples of women being trafficked involved triad links, and there are now strong links with the Albanian community. Those networks have to be infiltrated, and we must bring the criminals to justice. I think that I am right in saying that only one has been identified so far.

Victor Malarek, a Canadian journalist, spent four years in the world of pimps, traffickers, rapists and some of the most disenfranchised women and girls in the world. He has written a book on the sex trade. He says: Trafficking is an easy crime to solve. If I can find the brothels and traffickers, so can the police. Just look in the tabloid personal advertisements for a start… These men are not looking for relationships… They want sex with a faceless female. Well, we did not need to know that, but the fact is that one man—an investigative journalist—working by himself has found out an awful lot about the industry and the personalities involved. We should heed his words.

Another concern of mine has been echoed by the hon. Member for Amber Valley. When I visited Sicily, everyone wanted to know when the UK would ratify the Palermo protocol, because that would be regarded as a signal of the fact that we are serious about the problem and will do something. I would be grateful if the Minister could enlighten us on that.

My next point may be outside the Minister's area of responsibility, but it is on an important issue. A recent report by Amnesty pointed out the link between trafficking and post-war militarisation. The example given was the situation following the arrival of the international peacekeeping troops in Kosovo in July 1999. There was a vast increase in trafficking activity and organised prostitution, with KFOR troops making up most of the clients. Hon. Members may not find that surprising, because soldiers will be soldiers everywhere. I suspect that, around the world, there is a proportion who, away from home, may use local prostitutes.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell)

I ask the hon. Lady to reflect on what she has said, which could be taken as a massive slight to the armed forces, the vast majority of whom would never get involved in any such activity in a million years.

Sandra Gidley

I was going on to say that I suspect that the make-up of individuals in the Army is no different to that of any cross-section of British society in any walk of life. I am not talking about official activity, but out-of-hours private time activity undertaken while they are based away from home. There is a problem, but I have visited Kosovo and know that the Army does what it can to prevent it and highlight the problems and risks involved. I do not want what I say to be taken as a slur on the British Army.

Mr. Brazier

I have been several times to Kosovo with the Defence Select Committee, and I think that the hon. Lady should reflect. The Army is not just a cross-section, and it is not just doing its best to prevent prostitution. Huge numbers of our soldiers out there, both on and off duty, spend many long hours helping the local community there with everything from rebuilding primary schools to assisting the police. They do endless good works. They do a great deal better than an average cross-section of the community.

Sandra Gidley

I was talking about one aspect of their lives, but the hon. Gentleman is quite right. There is also a strong use of Territorial forces to provide support and back-up, so that children in Kosovo have sports opportunities and so on. I give great credit for the work that is done. I suppose I should not have said that soldiers will be soldiers; I would like to retract those remarks. I should perhaps say that some men will be men. That might be a fairer reflection of the situation.

I do not know what the nationality was of the troops involved, but certainly some of the KFOR troops have been linked with the trafficking, and that is a problem. I would be happy to receive an answer on that later, but perhaps the Minister could advise, or commit to advising me, about what work is done with British troops and what training they are given, so that they become aware of the problem. If the link is made with Italy, as I said earlier, they may be in a position to report and identify the problem. What is being done to send a strong message that this is unacceptable behaviour? I assume that most people understand that it is unacceptable behaviour, but the military forces in peacekeeping, post-conflict situations need to make an extra special effort to ensure that this issue will not come back to haunt UK troops in future. I do not think that it has so far, but people cannot really be convinced about such things.

I was going to mention the European convention on action against trafficking in human beings, which is currently being drawn up by the Council of Europe, but the hon. Member for Amber Valley went through it in detail. I ask the Minister to give some steer on whether the UK is totally behind all the recommendations that were mentioned, because some of them, such as the risk assessment before repatriation and the reflection period are not a part of UK law—and we recently missed a good opportunity to include them. I am slightly bemused as to how we are going to comply with the convention if it takes this form, when many of the measures are not in place.

2.52 pm
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) on securing this debate on an important subject. International trafficking in women and children for prostitution—most of them young girls—is one of the most horrifying crimes existing today. Some of the earliest signs of trafficking in the UK in the 20th century were evident in the late-1980s in the triad-controlled brothels, principally in London and other major cities. In 2001, Der Spiegel and the German secret service estimated that the revenues of international criminal gangs involved in trafficking amounted to about €5 billion a year, of which two thirds was collected by Chinese gangs.

Various international organisations are involved, including UNICEF and Anti-Slavery International. By a curious coincidence, my housemaster at school was on the world board of the latter organisation, and I remember him telling us that slavery had not disappeared. In addition, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime is involved. All the organisations have been campaigning hard over the past few years to end human trafficking, particularly in women and children. However, their work is made harder by the frightening lack of any comprehensive data on trafficking worldwide. The hon. Lady referred to problems, and I have seen similar figures to the ones she mentioned from the International Organisation for Migration, which suggests that around 700,000 people are involved. I have even seen a figure suggesting that 2 million women and children are trafficked in a single year.

The International Organisation for Migration observed that in most countries there are few statistics or efforts to measure trafficking, and Britain is no less culpable. As far as I know, the Home Office has no realistic, regular source of information on the number of women who are trafficked into the UK for the purposes of exploitation. An official was quoted in a recent report as saying that the illegal immigrant population was a "knowledge black hole".

In Britain, a Home Office seminar in 1999, entitled "Workers in health projects in London", estimated that 50 per cent. of those employed in London's brothels—

2.55 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.7 pm

On resuming

Mr. Brazier

An investigation by the Metropolitan police found that 76 per cent. of the Soho brothels searched were staffed by foreign prostitutes, principally from Albania and Lithuania. An estimated 80 per cent. of people trafficked from Albania are teenage girls under the age of 18. The trade has been estimated to be worth $7 billion a year.

Worldwide migrant smuggling and trafficking is worth an estimated $12 billion to $13 billion a year. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe believes that smuggling and trafficking has now replaced the drugs trade as the world's most profitable illegal industry. The Home Office echoed that view in the evidence that it gave to the Home Affairs Committee for its report on border controls.

At the risk of covering ground already mentioned, it is worth focusing on what we are discussing. Typically, gangs offer foreign girls passage to a fictitious legitimate job for a price to be paid off in a few months, but the bill, as the hon. Member for South Swindon described, is never paid off. There is evidence that girls, sometimes as young as 12, have gone missing from the care of social services in Britain after being released into the care of so-called relatives, who turn out to have false documentation. Organised gangs have complete power over their victims, who do not dare complain or run away for reasons that have already been discussed. Often, the induction process starts with violent, multiple rape until the girl's resistance has been completely broken.

Harriet Sergeant, the author and journalist, in more than one of her works describes areas of Albania where law and order has so completely broken down that parents are frightened to send their girls to school, because gangs hang around outside, seize girls, gang rape them and move them to a country of their choice.

3.10 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.51 pm

On resuming

Mr. Brazier

The hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) referred to the internet as a further extension of this vile business and I underline everything that she said, except, oddly enough, her last comment. I was a little puzzled when she said that America was behind us on this. In fact, it seems that the FBI has been ahead of almost everyone else and has been to Parliament several times to brief groups of MPs.

Judy Mallaber

It has indeed. I was present when Ed the Fed came to a meeting, which was very interesting.

America is behind us in that our Internet Watch Foundation includes all internet service providers, payment companies and so on in this country. In America, hardly any of them are in that organisation. When our Internet Watch Foundation provides information, it is not necessarily dealt with.

In Operation Ore, we prosecuted or took action against almost all those who had downloaded material in this country, but the United States did not take action against many people, so, in some ways, it is well behind us. We are closing down sites hosted in this country, but a lot of material is coming in from the United States where action is not being taken to close sites.

Mr. Brazier

I am interested to hear that. Certainly, the United States is ahead on the investigative side, but it has a difficulty because of its federal structure. As in so many other areas, it is necessary to obtain co-operation between federal agencies and prosecuting authorities in individual states. That applies to a number of areas of organised crime there.

The truth is that the problem of people-trafficking is a symptom of the wider breakdown of immigration controls. Our failure in the west to cope with the challenges of people movements and the tens of millions of people who fly across the borders of all major western countries every year has created market opportunities for this revolting trade.

A UNHCR report in July 2000 on the trafficking and smuggling of refugees claimed that much of the existing policy making of European Governments is part of the problem and not the solution. Here in Britain, successive Governments have, rightly, started to demand visas for visitors from more and more countries that are likely to be a source of illegal immigrants. However, as the changes in the paper arrangements have not always been buttressed with administrative measures to make them effective, they have all too often worked perversely simply to strengthen the position of criminal smugglers. In 2000, Migration News Sheet commented:

Through their … short-sightedness and inclination to rush through emergency measures without reflecting on the consequences … EU states have helped to create the ingredients of a very lucrative form of international criminality which top Mafia bosses probably never even dreamed of, namely trafficking in human beings. Besides the lack of proper monitoring I referred to earlier—the fact that we do not have a handle on the statistics we are dealing with—our borders and internal enforcement procedures are undermanned. As MP for Canterbury, I frequently go through immigration at Dover, and I can see how overstretched immigration officers are. On the internal side, the same kind of triad and snakehead groups that run many of the prostitution rings for women and young girls were behind the Morecambe bay disaster, which was referred to earlier in the debate.

We know that, as long ago as June the previous year, the Home Office was warned about the way in which vulnerable migrants were being exploited by gangmasters in the area. The warning was not ignored but a clear decision was taken to do nothing. In a letter to the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), the Home Office said that the immigration service would not intervene due to "resource issues" and the fact that little useful purpose would have been served by sending officers to assist. What else were officers doing that served a greater purpose?

So, what should we do? First, we need better intelligence. The Government are putting extra resources into the intelligence services, which we have welcomed. Some of the money should be used to deal with this issue. These are the same criminals who are involved in many other areas of crime, and even, I suspect, in terrorism. The National Criminal Intelligence Service needs to place more emphasis on the matter, too. We are dealing with a market as large as that of drugs.

We need to do more to defend our frontiers by considering manning issues, and to deal with those already operating here. If we can destroy the market, the trade will dry up. We must look again at the work permit system, which is widely believed to be open to abuse. A recent parliamentary question asked the Government to list the categories of people granted work permits due to the nature of their employment. The reply revealed that 1,160 entrants in one year alone were categorised as dancers, nearly all of whom were from developing countries. I wonder, when those things were rubberstamped—there is usually no check afterwards—what sort of jobs people thought those girls were going to end up doing.

Sandra Gidley

I am a little concerned about the hon. Gentleman's focus on work permits and immigration. It is clear in my mind that this is a separate problem. I appreciate his point about opening the floodgates, but many of these trafficking victims never get anywhere near a work permit. He is confusing the issue with illegal immigration, which should be identified as such and dealt with as such.

Mr. Brazier

I can only express total astonishment at the hon. Lady's remark. It is only because of the growth of illegal immigration that the gap in the market has opened for illegal gangs. The trade of smuggling people illegally into this country was started because wealthy people were paying to come here—that is how the gangs built their power bases. If that had not been possible, the whole problem would not have come about. I am not making a political point. That has happened and grown under Governments of different political persuasions.

Of course, the vast majority of people we are talking about do not have a work permit of any kind, but there are a number of examples other than the one I cited. A suspiciously large number of people are listed as fashion models, for example, and an even larger number are just described as working in the leisure industry. The Home Office has said that domestic employment is often open to abuse, which is another large category. Introducing more checks and controls into the work permit system would not solve the problem on its own, but it would make it harder for people to be brought into the country in that way.

We also need to consider whether the new legislation on trafficking, which is obviously welcome, is delivering the sentences that perpetrators deserve. It is too early to tell whether it is, but a few really tough exemplary sentences could make a big difference to the climate. I appreciate that the issue is cross-departmental and that this question is a fast ball—the Minister may want to reply in writing—but I would be most grateful if he could let me know what the guidelines are for the Crown Prosecution Service. Busy, overworked prosecutors must face a tremendous temptation to abandon complicated cases in which the witnesses are, almost by definition, people whose English is not very good. One can see immediately the 80 per cent. chance of success rule coming up. It is in the public interest that such cases should be pursued, even if many of the witnesses are extremely frightened of and nervous about testifying. If they are willing and brave enough to do so, they should have their day in court.

It would also be interesting to know whether the Lord Chief Justice has issued any guidelines on sentencing. The maximum of 14 years applies, but what sentences are judges actually encouraged to give?

Last but certainly not least, I come to the actual handling of the unfortunate women and girls. Amnesty International and other organisations have called for medical care, counselling and other forms of aid. An area that I have been heavily involved in during the past 10 to 15 years is the handling of rape victims, particularly child rape victims. Frankly, we have transformed the criminal justice system's handling of British rape victims. One can imagine how much worse is the plight of these girls. They have been raped not just once. They have had months—in some cases, even years—of their lives blotted out in the most horrible fashion imaginable, yet they do not appear to get a fraction of the treatment that a British rape victim would get.

On granting asylum in such cases, obviously, each case must be considered on its own merits, but I strongly suspect that, if granting asylum were ever to become a pattern, it could backfire and end up partially feeding the industry. I may be wrong on that. Italy has been quoted several times. It is a matter of public record that I have been part of the Italian criminal justice system. The police and legal authorities that handled my case acted with exemplary professionalism.

The Deputy Speaker who was in the Chair a moment ago knows from the last trip that he and I made to Kosovo how much the Italian carabinieri there have done in exposing such problems, but the fact is that the Italian system as a whole has not delivered solutions. Italy is a country where prostitutes are more overtly on the streets than almost anywhere else I know in Europe. Ordinary Italian families talk widely about a range of problems to do with illegal immigration.

There can be no doubt that trafficking in women is a modern form of slavery and a horrible problem. It is part of a wider pattern of people smuggling, which is a lucrative industry that deserves and needs the same kind of focused treatment as is currently given to the drugs trade. People smugglers—often the same gangs—have introduced terrifying new levels of criminality into parts of Europe. The corruption and terror that they import into the UK and the destruction of the lives of innocent, vulnerable people are a blot on our society. We owe it to their victims to tackle the problem urgently.

4.4 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell)

I genuinely congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) on securing this debate. When one begins to consider in detail some of the occurrences and the appalling impact on so many women throughout the world, the conclusion has to be that the matter absolutely should be a priority for the Government, who certainly are tackling it.

I share my hon. Friend's abhorrence of the trafficking of women across international borders.The trafficking of women involves crimes such as rape, torture, sexual or labour exploitation, kidnap and psychological abuse. The victims rarely have any idea what lies in store for them.

I want to draw a distinction between human smuggling and human trafficking, as the two terms are often confused. Human smuggling happens when organised crime gangs facilitate the illegal entry of migrants into another country by means of clandestine passage or the use of false documentation. A fee is usually paid by the migrant, who is a willing participant in that arrangement, one that normally finishes on arrival in the country of destination.

Human trafficking is when organised gangs coerce, abduct, threaten or deceive migrants into travelling. Those migrants are then exploited in one or more ways after they reach their destination. Traffickers control their victims through intimidation, slavery and imprisonment. They often threaten the victims' family back home. Exploitation and coercion are the key differences between the two methods of illegal entry, but what is important is that what starts as smuggling often turns into trafficking along the way.

The scale of the problem has been identified by a number of contributors to the debate. Of the two, smuggling is more common than trafficking, but the clandestine nature of the crime makes it impossible to give an accurate figure on either smuggling or trafficking. Widely cited guesstimates for trafficking range from 600,000 to 900,000 victims worldwide each year. Of those, 30 per cent.—a shocking statistic—are thought to be minors. The United Nations has estimated that criminals earn up to $20 billion a year from trafficking. That meaningfully brings home the scale of the problem that we are facing.

What are the motives of those involved? Members may wonder how women become the victims of traffickers. Frequently, they are motivated by the wish to escape from poverty. Inevitably many victims come from countries suffering from internal strife or where there is ineffective law and order. That makes them especially vulnerable to recruitment by traffickers. As well as those push factors there are pull factors, such as the demand for cheap and malleable labour in the developed countries and the victims' desire to find a better, more prosperous future in another country—I refer to those people who start out being smuggled and get coerced into being trafficked along the way.

In recent years, the turmoil in the Balkans has provided an unfortunate breeding ground for serious crimes such as human trafficking. That was referred to by a number of hon. Members. Many of those trafficked to the European Union originate in the Balkans. Those who come from further afield are often transported through the Balkans to their final destination. I am aware of the report by Amnesty International on the trafficking of women and young girls in Kosovo, to which my hon. Friend referred. I certainly welcome the recommendations in that report. Most of them reflect work already planned or being carried out by the UK, the European Union, the UN and NATO, which we will continue to support fully.

I now turn to what we are trying to do in this country and through this Government. We are committed to doing everything in our power to combat human trafficking. Our strategy encompasses a wide range of actions, including prevention in source and transit countries, co-operation with international partners, strengthening the law, tackling criminals through intelligence and enforcement operations, clamping down on illegal working and—this is an important point—helping the victims of trafficking.

To achieve our aims, we need good co-ordination across Departments, partnerships with businesses and NGOs and targeted international action. In 2000, Reflex, a practical, multi-agency task force, was set up to tackle all forms of people smuggling and trafficking. Led by the National Crime Squad, Reflex brings together all the key Government agencies that are involved in this work, including the immigration service, the Home Office, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, major police forces, the security intelligence agencies and the Foreign Office.

Reflex immediately set up a network of more than 20 immigration and liaison officers, mainly in Europe, to work with other Governments to disrupt and dismantle gangs. If we are to tackle the problem successfully, there must be that degree of international co-ordination. Joint operational units have also been set up at Heathrow and Gatwick, where immigration service officers work alongside police officers.

I deal now with the situation of the victims. It is particularly important that in our efforts to disrupt and dismantle the organised crime groups involved in trafficking we do not forget who the real victims of that appalling crime are. The UK Government are committed to supporting and protecting genuine victims of trafficking who are vulnerable. We have taken steps to provide support to such victims when they are identified. To help with their identification, an online toolkit aimed at law enforcement officials was developed to increase awareness and understanding of trafficking. In 2003, the so-called Poppy scheme was set up by the Home Office to provide safe accommodation and support for women who have been trafficked into the UK for the purposes of prostitution. Its core functions are to act as an advice and information point, to offer a range of support services through a casework approach and to facilitate the voluntary return of victims to their country of origin.

We have also enacted legislation, to which a number of Members have referred, to criminalise trafficking for the first time. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 and the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004 include tough maximum penalties of 14 years for new, wide-ranging offences covering trafficking into, out of or within the United Kingdom. That measure was long overdue. The Acts include penalties for trafficking for forced labour or for the removal of organs, as well as for sexual exploitation. Overseas, we are working to build capacity in source countries.

Mr. Brazier

Will the Minister confirm that he will write to me about the cases prosecuted under the Crown Prosecution Service guidelines?

Mr. Rammell

I was going to refer to the hon. Gentleman's comments later. That is another Department's area of responsibility, but I will happily respond to him in writing.

Overseas, we are working to build capacity in source countries so that they can fight trafficking. For example, the Home Office is leading a European Union-funded twinning project with the Czech Ministry of the Interior to strengthen the capacity of the Czech Republic to combat trafficking. Anti-trafficking projects have also been funded in the western Balkans and in Poland. In Bosnia, we have a number of projects and secondments to help tackle the large-scale problem of corruption.

The Department for International Development has funded a range of projects specifically aimed at tackling prostitution and the trafficking of women and children. In south-east Asia, for example, DFID is contributing £8 million over a nine-year period to the Greater Mekong regional trafficking project—an International Labour Organisation-led project aimed at reducing trafficking and the labour exploitation of women and children in Cambodia, China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Through its £15 million partnership framework agreement with the ILO, DFID is funding further anti-trafficking programmes in south-east Asia and west Africa.

I am pleased to say that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office plays a key role in tackling human trafficking. With the help of our diplomatic missions overseas, we contribute to the work of Reflex by raising awareness of the dangers of trafficking among potential victims and host-country authorities, and by reporting on local trends. We use our political and diplomatic knowledge and contacts to encourage foreign partners to increase their efforts to combat the crime. The FCO has also funded a range of projects, including an anti-trafficking witness protection and support project in Albania and a study on the role of women in the Albanian police force. We have provided equipment for the anti-human trafficking and sexual offences unit in Bosnia and funded two Serbian police officers' attendance at an Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe conference in Vienna on human trafficking.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon asked whether there were any projects in train under the auspices of the FCO global opportunities fund. There are. Last year, it funded a project to counter child trafficking in Mali, and it is currently funding a project in Bulgaria to help tackle the organised crime groups involved in the smuggling of illegal contraband. Many of those groups are also involved in human trafficking.

I now turn to multilateral assistance. The UK also works to combat human trafficking through international organisations such as the European Union, the OSCE, the Council of Europe, NATO, the International Organisation for Migration and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Many of those organisations fund their own projects on human trafficking.

Through the European Council's 2002 framework decision on combating trafficking in human beings, the EU called on Governments across the world to take concrete measures and to intensify co-operation aimed at prevention through to victim assistance. Last December, the OSCE put in place an action plan to combat trafficking in human beings. The plan aims to address the problem comprehensively, including prevention, prosecution of criminals, international assistance and the protection of victims. A special representative, Helga Konrad, now heads a special unit within the OSCE, which is a welcome development.

For the first time in its history, NATO adopted a policy on combating trafficking in human beings at the NATO Istanbul summit in June. The policy requires specific action to be taken, such as developing training programmes for contributing countries. We strongly welcome that initiative, especially given the problems that have occurred during peacekeeping operations.

International conventions can certainly help, too. The Government have ratified the key instruments that outlaw slavery, such as the international covenant on civil and political rights, the European convention on human rights, the United Nations slavery convention and the International Labour Organisation conventions 29 and 105 on forced labour. We continue to promote their widest possible ratification and implementation, a task that we shall continue to push forward vigorously.

The United Nations convention against transnational organised crime came into force in September 2003. Two of the three protocols associated with it have also come into force. While the United Kingdom has signed the convention and its protocols, there still remains some primary legislation to be put in place before the UK can go ahead with ratification. That will be done as soon as parliamentary time allows. I have a strong message on that point: we need to focus on such matters and take them forward. I shall ensure that the business managers take that on board and, we hope, obtain parliamentary time for such action to take place.

We are also actively participating in the negotiations on the draft Council of Europe convention against trafficking in human beings. We welcome the involvement of NGOs, such as Amnesty International and Anti-Slavery International on what should be included in the convention, and have taken on board a number of their views.

My hon. Friend asked about the care of, and support for, victims of trafficking, which is a key issue. While the Government are committed to supporting and protecting vulnerable victims of trafficking, that must be balanced with the need to make sure that support is effectively targeted and not stretched to the point where it is of little use to those who are most in need. If we are to prevent existing victims from being re-trafficked and new victims from being ensnared, it is vital that we gather intelligence on traffickers and their activities. Victims can play an important role in the defence against trafficking.

My hon. Friend suggested that a minimum period of three months should be agreed throughout Europe for the recovery of victims. Of course we accept that victims need to recover from their ordeal. Indeed, the Home Office-funded Poppy scheme to which I referred earlier supports victims of trafficking who have been forced into the vice trade while they decide whether or not they wish to assist the authorities in investigating the traffickers. We will continue to provide support, care and assistance for victims and will look at granting recovery and reflection periods on a case-by-case basis.

However, it would be difficult for us to proceed with instituting the three-month guarantee on a uniform basis. Were we to do so, there would be a danger that we would almost create a market for traffickers because a pull factor would be established. Nevertheless, we immediately give periods of four weeks, so that victims can decide what to do, and up to 16 weeks if they help the information unit. That is all judged on a case-by-case basis and we take such action because it is essential that we have co-operation from victims to obtain intelligence to capture the traffickers so that we can make a real impact on the trade.

My hon. Friend also asked how often such issues are raised at an international level. As I said earlier, they are raised at every available opportunity through the OSCE, NATO and the European Union. We are particularly active in the OSCE and NATO. Our aim is to agree a draft convention that balances the provision of care for, and the protection of, victims of trafficking with effective immigration controls and the gathering of intelligence to disrupt trafficking and to prosecute those responsible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) referred to child porn on the internet. That is a key worry and we have been active in tackling such matters. We pushed the issue very strongly through the G8, which is now setting up a 24/7 network of law enforcement officials throughout the world. Through the Foreign Office, we also funded the Wilton Park conference, which took place last month and in which 31 countries participated, and a chat monitor software and training programme that involved 14 countries. Training in Bangkok for law enforcement officials from 12 south-east Asian countries is due to take to place in February 2005. That is an important initiative.

Let me also refer to some of the other points that have been raised in this debate. The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) referred to the difficulty involved in establishing reliable statistics. To be blunt, it is difficult to establish reliable statistics and there are a number of reasons for that. Despite the clear definitions of trafficking and smuggling in the supplementary protocol to the UN convention against transnational organised crime, there are still some grey areas. As I said earlier, it is common for people to begin their journeys voluntarily in order to seek a better life. They believe that the gangs assisting them are merely facilitating that journey. It is only when they arrive in the destination country that methods such as prostitution or forced labour are used to force them into jobs that the gangs want them to carry out. It is therefore very difficult to determine exactly where along the route someone becomes a trafficked person as opposed to someone who is being smuggled. Establishing the true statistics is very difficult.

The hon. Lady also said that we should look to what is happening in Italy, although the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) had an alternative view. We work closely with Italy and other EU countries and regularly exchange best practice, which is important.

The hon. Lady also raised the issue of what we are doing to ensure that UK peacekeepers do not engage in activities associated with human trafficking. Let me be clear: all members of the UK armed forces are bound by codes of conduct that set out the standard of behaviour expected of them. They are made fully aware of those codes prior to being deployed on operations. They also receive regular diversity training, which includes training in gender awareness. As part of their pre-deployment training, personnel posted abroad receive instruction on the customs and culture of the host country, including, where relevant, the cultural status of women. This is an issue that we are rightly concerned about, although, as I said earlier, I would not want to create the wrong impression: the vast majority of our armed forces are people who do an extraordinarily difficult job very well and would never in a million years have anything to do with crimes such as these.

Sandra Gidley

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Rammell

How long is there until we must finish?

Mr. Derek Conway (in the Chair)

There is one minute left.

Mr. Rammell

Then I apologise to the hon. Member for Romsey, but I cannot give way.

The hon. Member for Canterbury raised the issue of work permits. I am not convinced about the arguments that he made. Most important, people have to apply for the work permit, so I am not sure that the case he was making is valid. However, if he has evidence, we would certainly consider it.

We will continue to do everything in our power to tackle trafficking in women. To achieve that, we need a multi-agency—

Mr. Derek Conway (in the Chair)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister. It has been a difficult afternoon thanks to the Divisions, but I am afraid that his time is up.

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