The amendment is designed to make the Bill more effective in one of the areas where I think there is no division on either side of the House and indeed it may be particularly appropriate that we debate this while in the Chamber we debate the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. This amendment would make it easier and certainly quicker to attempt to stamp out the modern form of slavery which is people trafficking.
The effect of this clause is to add to the commencement section of the Bill section 27, the offences that relate to people trafficking. As currently drafted, only clause 17 of the Bill, support for failed asylum-seekers, comes into force the day the Bill becomes an Act. What we seek to do is to add a reference to section 27 so that we can get a move on with attacking people trafficking.
Everyone on the Committee has participated in debates about the despicable practice of people trafficking. The Government have signalled their intention to tighten up the law, indeed to sign the Council of Europe convention that will enable them to do so, and we welcome that and we support them in that move.
The Minister will recall that when we discussed our amendments to clause 17 we were keen that this House should send a very clear message that we are all serious about toughening up the law and we think that this amendment is a very clear and easy way of doing that. It would ensure that the provisions relating to people trafficking are brought in at the earliest opportunity. We believe this would act as a deterrent and it will also enable the conviction and punishment of as many people traffickers as possible. I am sure the Minister will agree that the sooner we can start on that course of action the better.
The earliest opportunity to start doing that is the day this Bill passes on to the statute book and that is what this amendment would achieve. I hope therefore that it will be regarded sympathetically by the Government.
I did indeed look upon this amendment with a great deal of sympathy because I think the Committee has been united in the debates we have had on this subject over the last few weeks. There has been a very clear determination that the law in this area needs to be strengthened. I therefore sought some strong arguments as to why we should not accept this amendment. Only one thing swayed my mind and there is only one reason that I therefore ask the hon. Member for Ashford to consider withdrawing this amendment.
The advice that I have received is that there is a risk—a small risk but a risk none the less—that the courts would potentially not look favourably on our attempts to prosecute under this offence if we did not observe the convention of seeking a brief interlude in which to publicise the fact that this new offence had been introduced.
I am told that it is usual to bring in offences after a period of two months. I do not want to risk—and I am sure nobody on this Committee would wish to risk—any potential prosecution for an offence such as this going wrong because we did not observe this protocol. If the risk is there we should be alive to it. My concern is that when this offence is introduced we are able to maximise the effectiveness of our prosecutions using this offence. If there is a risk that puts that potential in jeopardy, I think I should accept that advice. Therefore I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment because the argument that has been put to me is that there may well be no interlude in which we can publicise—
I will not give way.
—publicise this offence and therefore if prosecutions may be in jeopardy I think the amendment should be withdrawn. The brief interlude of two months is not a big time period. If it allows us, however, to increase our chances of successful prosecutions, I think we should take it.
I find that explanation quite extraordinary. It is not clear why that convention has built up—if it has built up. I confess that in my 10 years in this House I have never heard that explanation for delaying commencement. I fully accept that the Minister will have been given that advice—although I sense that he is taking it with extreme reluctance.
It seems that the courts could put prosecutions in jeopardy because an offence had not been sufficiently publicised. I am not a lawyer, I am glad to say, but one of the clichÃ(c)s to which I cling is that ignorance of the law is no excuse. There will be huge tracts of the statute book about which Committee members know nothing, but none of us would be able to say “Well, the prosecution should not happen because I did not know I was breaking the law.” In this instance, the people who will be terribly inconvenienced by discovering that they were breaking a law that they did not know existed will presumably be people traffickers. Inconveniencing them should be fairly low on any sensible person’s list of priorities.
I find the Minister’s explanation extraordinary. Nevertheless, I have no wish to jeopardise the prosecution of such people, so I accept the Minister’s advice.
I find it extremely unlikely that prosecutions could be jeopardised, but I have to take what the Minister says in good faith. I have no doubt that the best legal brains in his Department have advised him that it could put prosecutions in jeopardy. I have no wish to do that. With deep and extreme reluctance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.