Clause 58 - Trafficking into the UK for sexual exploitation

Sexual Offences Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee on 18th September 2003.

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Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 182, in

clause 58, page 29, line 12, at end insert—

'( ) a person who has been subject to trafficking into the UK for sexual exploitation shall be granted humanitarian protection.'.—[Sandra Gidley.]

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow 2:30 pm, 18th September 2003

This morning, I made clear my welcome for the trafficking clauses and the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley). While I accept that it may not be possible in each case to grant humanitarian protection under the law, we support the intent of the amendment.

There is no question but that trafficking for prostitution has become an extremely profitable activity. It is now estimated that it is as profitable as drug dealing and we are all well aware of the vast sums that are made from that. In 2000, the police undertook a research project. When they checked on 50 flats in Soho, they found 148 women, nearly all of whom were from outside the United Kingdom—in fact, 125 of them were from the Balkans. That so many of the women were from one relatively small region is a clear sign of how organised the trafficking is and how well prepared the gangs involved are.

If we are to get to the people who run the gangs, it is vital that we persuade some of the women who have been trafficked to give evidence against them. They will not do so if they are frightened about what will happen to them, especially if they think that they will be sent back to where they came from, which is obviously where the gangsters are operating. The Home Office has undertaken work on the issue. It has funded a pilot study to provide safe houses, and I hope that that study will be expanded. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) cannot attend the beginning of our proceedings this afternoon, but she has asked me to mention Project Paladin, which the Home Office has been operating at Heathrow. She is extremely impressed by it and is trying to track down what happened to the children who were brought into the United Kingdom.

The key to the problem is to ensure that we treat people who are victims as victims, even if they are adult and even if, in some cases, they knew that they were not coming to this country legally, but did not know what they were being brought here to do, how

they would be treated when they arrived and that, in essence, they would become slaves.

Although the Minister might not accept the amendment, I hope that we shall receive a positive response to the issues with which it deals. If we are to crack the business, it is critical to persuade some of those who have been trafficked—the victims—that they will receive support and protection if they give evidence that leads us to the people who are responsible for such an extremely nasty but profitable trade.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I thank the Under-Secretary for his letter detailing the humanitarian aid that is already available. On Second Reading, several hon. Members spoke about the need for a six-month period of reflection. Evidence shows that, in countries in which that is available, there are more effective prosecutions. I understand that giving people a temporary residence permit might be outside asylum channels, and that the Government might well be nervous about that. However, such nervousness has to be balanced against the need to crack down on this terrible crime.

I had the privilege of visiting Moldova with UNICEF. I went to a refuge where returnees were being looked after for a few weeks. It was incredibly distressing to see some of the ladies and their great needs right across the board, including their need for medical and mental care. It was horrendous to see the state in which the women had been returned. As with any problem, we have a duty to tackle it from all ends. As the demand comes from our country, we have a big responsibility to play our part in tackling the crime. We can play our full role by permitting such ladies to stay longer, so that they are not tempted straight back into the profession or driven underground by the threats that are undoubtedly made, and so that there can be effective prosecutions.

I was told in Moldova that it was more helpful, in terms of giving support, if trafficked ladies were repatriated, as opposed to deported. The charities made that point strongly, and I now place that point on the record. Obviously, repatriation at least gives people a chance to go into the sort of refuge that I visited. Sadly, although the refuge was carrying out some tremendous work, it could do so only for a few weeks. When I was there, the children and adults were kept together, but that will be remedied.

I was told that it was quite likely that 90 per cent. of those returnee women would go back into the cycle again. We have a responsibility, given our relatively affluent position, to some sender countries to see what we can do to break the cycle. I have a further request that we consider a six-month period of reflection.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

I accept the points made at the beginning of the debate. The hon. Member for Romsey talked about humanitarian protection but did not define that. However, she says she wants to stimulate wider debate on the issue and find out what is being done, and I fully accept that.

I also fully agree that victims of trafficking should be protected and treated appropriately, particularly

while their cases are going through court—they can feel very vulnerable then—when we are determining their future with them, and when we are considering the provision of services to support them. Hon. Members will know as a result of the correspondence to which they referred that a great deal is going on; it was all set out in the White Paper in February last year.

Our objective was to take a four-pronged approach, covering: the creation of appropriate offences in legislation; enforcement; victim protection; and international co-operation to enable us to get back down the chain and disrupt the organised criminals trafficking people into the country. Obviously, only the first of those requires legislation, which is why we acted as quickly as we could to get offences covering trafficking on to the statute book, first in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, and then in this Bill. The other provisions, including those for victim protection and enforcement, do not need legislative provision, and much has already happened.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) mentioned the provision of an automatic reflection period for victims of trafficking, and arrangements for returning people to their countries. I have been to the project and talked to some of the women supported by the Home Office-funded scheme, and it is an erroneous assumption that everybody who has been trafficked in and subjected to sexual exploitation wants to stay here. Many of them have children back in their own country, and many say that, as a result of their experiences, this is the last place that they want to stay. It depends very much on individual circumstances and what individuals—mainly women—say.

The pilot project provides a period of time to enable women, in the first phase of our contact with them, to make an informed decision on whether to co-operate with the police. There are different considerations in relation to children, who will not be returned to their country of origin unless robust arrangements are in place for their safety.

We have consistently rejected the idea of a statutory reflection period for victims, partly because that would be inflexible and not necessarily based on the details of the case, which can vary. We must balance the issues presented by victims with some of the wider issues about successfully detecting and prosecuting people who are plying this terrible trade. That is the only sustainable way to prevent other people from being trafficked in future. A statutory reflection period risks becoming a perverse incentive for people to come in via people smugglers and claim to be the victims of people traffickers—I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) for making that distinction earlier. That makes it much more difficult to identify, help and protect those people who really are the victims of traffickers. We must ensure that we do not build in an incentive for people to use that route, which gives protection to people who come in illegally and who might stay here.

In addition to the physical protection and support going on under the pilot project, we have produced

what is referred to as a toolkit for practitioners, although that term does not do it justice. It is a comprehensive attempt to bring together the best practice that is continually evolving, and to disseminate it to immigration officers, the police and other agencies to help them to identify and to work with victims in an appropriate and sensitive way. Such awareness-raising is important.

Early on in the pilot, we discovered that it is difficult getting enough referrals, even for places that we have provided, partly because women find it difficult to disclose. There were stories from women about being taken to sexual health clinics by their controllers, who would sit outside the consulting room door until the woman came out. Some women were able to disclose in the end, but only after a great deal of work and courage on their part. The ability of victims to feel safe in disclosing, so that referrals can be made is therefore important. It is also important that practitioners are available in all those places—or outlets, if you like—where victims might be allowed to go, so that they can pick up when something is wrong and provide the opportunity for disclosure. Raising awareness is critical to helping people to identify issues.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow mentioned Project Paladin. Immigration and Metropolitan police work jointly at key principal entry points to identify children at risk. Unfortunately, relatively significant numbers of children come into this country unaccompanied. That is a serious worry. The child protection pilot project was launched in March at Heathrow and involves one child protection officer working closely with immigration officers to disseminate child protection expertise in all kinds of ways, and not just in dealing with a child effectively once there is serious cause for concern. For instance, the ordinary immigration interview with a child is conducted in a way that is sensitive to the age-related needs of the child and to lines of inquiry that might be pursued to examine the possibility of there being a child protection issue.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North 2:45 pm, 18th September 2003

I spent a day at Heathrow looking at the workings of that project. I was extremely impressed. The information that it provides—not only about children being trafficked for sexual exploitation—will be incredibly important. Will the Minister of State ensure that the findings are implemented across the child care system, so that other Departments can also reap the benefits of this important work?

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

Yes, I can assure my hon. Friend of that. That is why we are proceeding as we are. The pilot is still being evaluated, but we want to apply the lessons of it nationally and to ensure that it takes place everywhere it is needed.

Intake teams have also been piloted at Dover as joint initiatives between the immigration service and social services. They will be extended to other ports, and to the Croydon and Solihull asylum screening units. Kent police have seconded a trained child protection officer to the joint immigration service

and police debriefing team based at Dover, and it is hoped that there will shortly be two permanent officers.

A lot is happening in respect of both adults and children. I hope that I have demonstrated that we take the trafficking of people, and especially of children, as seriously as do many hon. Members.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

It is good to hear that there is such progress at ports. I hope that that will be developed in future. However, is there not a serious gap in terms of the services that we are able to offer to young people who have been trafficked? We have seen alarming statistics about children who have left the safe house project in West Sussex: I presume that they have gone straight back into the hands of traffickers. Can we not do more?

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

My hon. Friend makes another important point. Views have been expressed about the closure of that safe house. There is a range of opinions among child care workers and immigration and police officers about the advisability of putting together in one place children who have experienced trafficking and/or sexual exploitation. One opinion is that when young people have been trafficked from a foreign country and speak a different language, and that is overlaid by the terrible experience of being subjected to enforced sexual exploitation, that increases the level of complexity of dealing with them above even the norm for sexually abused children in this country. On the other hand, there is a view that putting such children together makes them easily identifiable and allows the traffickers who brought them in to the country to keep their hooks into them and to get control of them. As my hon. Friend knows, a number of children absconded or were persuaded to leave that safe house. There is a fear that, at least in some of those cases, they left as a result of contact being made because their location was very visible and became known.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Liberal Democrat, Romsey

I took part in an Adjournment debate on this subject a few months ago, and it is my recollection that that safe house was set up because Sussex social workers became aware that children were disappearing. At that stage, it was felt that it would be better for them to be kept in one place where the social workers could keep an eye on them and monitor the situation. What precautions are being taken to ensure that the children are dispersed and that we do not revert to the previous situation in which the children—usually Nigerian, I think—were trafficked, if memory serves, to Italy? I think that we are going round in circles.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

That just reflects the nature of the children's situation when they are trafficked into the country and the hold that the traffickers can have over them. It is difficult always to cut through that control and to stop the traffickers persuading children to come back. Some children were lost from that project. An important lesson to learn from it is that child care practitioners need the additional knowledge and expertise that dealing with those young people demands. One advantage of the safe house was that it allowed the people working there to develop best practice and that special expertise. It is important that, as we help local authorities to deal with the matter, we

continue to disseminate that learning and the extra skills that those people acquired.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow said that we had to be strong on all fronts if we were to crack the problem. It is important that we protect victims and get them to help us so that we use the information they provide to prosecute traffickers when we can, and disrupt their activities when we cannot. Perhaps in that way we can prevent those who may not yet have been trafficked from being trafficked by the same people in future. We have to balance those two important objectives continually.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

Other hon. Members and I mentioned that the legislation does not include trafficking for labour, which is a serious problem. I appreciate that there may be difficulties in including that in the Sexual Offences Bill, but will my hon. Friend say whether the Home Office is looking at that issue and whether we should try to address the problem in other legislation?

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Order. That would fall outside the scope of the Bill, but I am prepared to allow the Minister of State to respond briefly, if she wishes.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

That point is outside the scope of the Bill, but I assure my hon. Friend that we are actively considering the issue. As soon as there is legislative opportunity, it will be included.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Liberal Democrat, Romsey

Clearly, we did not go far enough with our amendments. I apologise for tabling an amendment that did not clarify exactly what we meant by humanitarian aid. The purpose of the amendment was to help us to consider what was going on and plans for the future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole mentioned the period of reflection. Clearly, we would not make people stay for six months if they did not want to stay; that would be ridiculous. Experience from other countries shows that where there is a period of reflection, a great number of women choose to return in that period, perhaps having had the chance to get treatment or to sort out things back home. As the Minister rightly said, for many of the women in question, the United Kingdom is not home. They are here under duress and are forced to send money home, not always of their own free will.

I was a little concerned when the Minister started talking about loopholes and incentives and whether we could be creating a route for illegal immigrants. I become concerned when I hear that sort of argument used as an excuse for not providing humanitarian aid. The United Kingdom has signed up to the optional protocol to the UN convention against transnational organised crime to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children. Article 6 states:

''Each State Party shall consider implementing measures to provide for the physical, psychological and social recovery of victims of trafficking''—

I admit that ''consider'' is a weasel word. Although I welcome the steps the Government have taken, I am aware that they have not ratified the Palermo protocol. They cannot, for example, say that they are fully complying with article 6. We might wish to revisit that

in more detail on Report, when there is a bit more meat on the bones.

The Minister mentioned outreach work. I referred earlier to my visit to Italy. There are projects in Rome in which people working with sex workers hand out cards in different languages to try to make people aware that there are places they can go if they are victims. There is also a helpline—interestingly, I was told that often clients who felt sorry for the people working as prostitutes phoned that line and alerted the authorities to something that was going on. Perhaps we could consider that in future.

I am only partially reassured. Nevertheless, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman, Being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of debate on the amendments proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Question agreed to.

Clause 58, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.