Mark speaks out against human trafficking

December 13, 2006 12:00 AM
By Mark Hunter

It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing the debate. Human trafficking is an increasingly troubling and despicable trade and it merits such a substantial discussion.

Of course, by the nature of the practice we have only estimates to work from but we know that several thousand people in the UK have been trafficked into the country and we have reason to believe that that number is increasing year on year. All hon. Members will be aware that human trafficking is not simply a case of illegal entry into the country. The aim of human trafficking is to exploit its victims, almost always the weakest and most vulnerable, more often than not in modern-day slavery. Hardly a week goes by without media reports about the horrifying ordeals so many women and children-and men-are subjected to as a result of human trafficking, mostly associated with the sex industry.

Before I outline my objections to current policy, I want to say a few words about where I see common ground between the Liberal Democrats and the Government. It would be unfair to say that the Government and law enforcement agencies had been totally inactive. A number of positive steps have been taken to crack down on such awful crimes, but we contend that not enough is yet being done. The establishment of the UK Human Trafficking Centre to join up a number of agencies is a welcome move and it would be useful if the Minister could update us this afternoon on how the system is working in its admittedly relatively early stages.

Improved outreach services for trafficked women are also to be welcomed and it is only fair to acknowledge the emphasis the Government placed on the issue during their presidency of the EU in 2005: I refer to the EU action plan on human trafficking. Nevertheless, there is a fundamental difference between the Government and the Liberal Democrats on the issue and that is in relation to the European convention against trafficking in human beings.

Only a couple of months ago, our party conference passed a resolution unanimously calling on the Government to ratify the convention and to consider further measures aimed at improving transnational co-operation on this vital issue. Further to that, we are calling on the Government to put as much pressure as possible on new members of the EU and future members to put in place rigorous anti-trafficking policies. In our view, that should be a fundamental issue for any country that wishes to join the EU. Although there have been a number of successful police operations that have liberated dozens of women from sex slavery over the past few years, we urge the Government to encourage more intelligence-led operations against traffickers and those who profit from their vile trade.

Human trafficking, whether for prostitution, child slavery or the purposes of the black economy, is a trade of international proportions. It is estimated to be worth about $7 billion a year. As the standard note on the subject explains, the trade is similar in financial terms to drug trafficking. The problem therefore requires a Europe-wide response, and I believe that the convention offers an excellent way forward. Our view is backed by Amnesty International and UNICEF, which both say that the convention would be a vital tool in the fight against that abhorrent practice.

Human trafficking is a terrible crime; all too often it takes advantage of the weakest and most vulnerable in society, and it involves victims who have been tricked or violently coerced into leaving their homes. The convention recognises that fact in a way that Government policy does not. It is my view and that of my party that we should protect the rights of those who have been exploited as well as increasing our efforts to bring down the criminal organisations who perpetuate such human misery. It is not good enough for the Government to advocate a lottery for the victims of trafficking when deciding whether someone should benefit from a period of reflection once their status has been discovered. Such consideration should be mandatory.

Although much of the convention involves compassion for the victims, it also offers an effective way to crack the criminal networks that organise human trafficking. If all European Union countries were to be bound by the convention, our intelligence on the gangs that instigate human trafficking would be vastly improved. That would put a major dent in their operations. By working with victims instead of criminalising them, we would have a much greater chance of securing prosecutions.

In addition, I believe that the Government could do more to raise the profile of those crimes, and they should encourage members of the public to report suspected cases of trafficking, along the lines suggested earlier, and of people being used as slaves. It would be reassuring to hear how the Government intend working with employers, trade unions and councils, both to support the victims of trafficking and to monitor employment sectors vulnerable to traffickers.

The Government have dithered and deliberated on the convention for long enough, and members on both sides of the House have pressed them on the issue. I hope that we will receive an assurance this afternoon that the UK will be moving towards ratification; it would send a strong signal to people traffickers that the leadership of the EU is treating the matter with the utmost seriousness.

The Prime Minister said that Britain must use the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery to redouble our efforts against human trafficking. It is a shameful business, and it is a disgrace that Britain has not yet signed up to the European convention. I hope that the Minister will say that we are at last moving towards that vital treaty.

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