Human Trafficking - Slavery

16th January 2008

Brooks Newmark calls on the Government to act decisively so that the UK can once again lead the world in the fight against slavery.


6.33 pm

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I am delighted to wrap up the Back-Bench contributions to this debate. I have always believed that this country should be rightly proud of the abolition of the slave trade as an outstanding act of moral and political courage. We should indeed celebrate the vision and courage of many of our predecessors without embarrassment, caveat, deep sorrow or apology. More importantly, however, we must continue to demonstrate to the international community that Britain does not, and will not, rest on its 19th century laurels, and that it will lead the 21st century fight against contemporary forms of slavery.

The Bishop of Sheffield said in a sermon to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain that

"we do not celebrate the end of slavery. For slavery is more rife in the world today than it was 250 years ago."

It is one thing to point to the existence of a law, and quite another to uphold it. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said:

"The legal argument has been won: laws against slavery exist in every country. The moral argument against such a thing is, of course, enduring".

The focus for today's debate should be the enduring moral argument against slavery, not the achievements of the past or, indeed, the short-term initiatives of the present.

The first thing that we must focus on is strengthening the perception that human trafficking is slavery. Since we are left today with a modern evolution of an age-old evil, we should preserve the word "slavery" to describe it. It is a shame that we have updated and, in some ways, sanitised modern-day slavery by calling it human trafficking. It has the same quality of moral ambiguity or neutrality as another famously cruel misnomer-the notion of "honour killing". I appreciate that the term is an international definition derived from the UN's Palermo protocol and the Council of Europe's convention, but "slavery" is a word that resonates with ordinary people, while "human trafficking" is more resonant with the mandarins than with the man on the street. I do not believe that that distinction is actually cosmetic.

One of the challenges of combating human trafficking is raising awareness among those who create a demand for it-a point made by many hon. Members-and reducing demand is indeed a key factor in controlling the scale of the problem. Initiatives such as the Fairtrade label and Rugmark help prevent legitimate consumers from purchasing goods that have been produced using slave labour. Changing purchasing habits is clearly a step in the right direction. However, as operations such as Operation Pentameter and its successor demonstrate, the bigger challenge lies in raising awareness that human trafficking is very much akin to slavery so as to reduce the demand for its victims.

Secondly, and more importantly, I am glad of the opportunity to focus on the Government's proposals for the future. Reading the Library briefs left me with the impression that the Government have been slightly drifting, if not actually stalling, on this issue in recent years. The Joint Committee on Human Rights referred in its 2006 report to some admirably alliterative goalposts for the Government's policy on trafficking: to prohibit and prevent trafficking, to prosecute and punish traffickers and to protect the victims of trafficking. One of the criticisms of the Government at that time was the failure to sign up to the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings.

Along with every hon. Member, I welcome the recent moves by the Minister to speed up the ratification process, but it is a scandal that it took the UK so long even to sign the convention, let alone to proceed with the ratification process. The circumstances of the UK's very late signature of the convention were scarcely more edifying than those of the Prime Minister's signature to the Lisbon treaty. For the more cynically minded among us, it would be possible sometimes to see the Government's response in terms of gesture politics. [Interruption.] The Leader of the House is saying "Oh, no", but the convention opened to signatories on 16 May 2005, while the Government did not get around to signing it until 23 March 2007, which-by coincidence, I am sure-was just two days before the bicentennial of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807. I assume that the Minister would have signed on 25 March, had it not fallen on a Sunday in 2007. On 21 February last year, the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, gave the House a commitment to look into the issue of ratification of the convention and to report back. Yet it has taken nearly a year for a Minister to make a statement to this House; indeed, the Minister has come to the Dispatch Box only to respond to an Opposition motion. It is a great shame that the convention will enter into force next month without Britain at the fore.

Thirdly, I want to conclude by challenging the Minister on some of the Government's specific objectives. Operation Pentameter was hailed as a great success and its successor is halfway through its six-month life. Can the Minister make any commitments about the Government's long-term strategy for the policing and prosecution of human 16 Jan 2008 : Column 1037trafficking, particularly in light of the decline in prosecutions under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 between 2006 and 2007?

The UK's action plan for tackling human trafficking has been described as a living document that will continue to develop in order to accommodate evolving best practice, so what lessons have been learned from Operation Pentameter that will inform the Government's policy in future? Is the Home Office meeting with any success in its research into the nature and scale of the problem, which has historically been bedevilled by a lack of concrete statistical evidence? More specifically, how is the strategy continuing to evolve in the light of the continuing impact of EU enlargement?

Finally, what steps are the Government taking to move away from ad hoc support for victims, paid for by periodic grants to the voluntary sector rather than by sustained funding? The POPPY project, for example, of which we have heard much this afternoon, was given a £2.4 million grant in April 2006, but the grant is to run over two years. I suspect that that decision will need to be revisited in the future. We need sustained funding, but we should also make full use of the capacity of safe accommodation-a point made earlier-by encouraging referrals and broadening referral criteria to include those under 18.

I hope that the Government will act decisively to consolidate all the work that has already been done, and I hope that the United Kingdom will once again lead the world in the fight against slavery instead of allowing the pace of change to be set by others.

6.40 pm


" title=You are now leaving Brooks Newmark's website to one that is not funded by the Communications Allowance of the House of Commons">| Hansard"

CSJ Homelessness Report

Download the Centre for Social Justice Report on addressing the blight of homelessness: "Housing First - Housing Led Solutions to Rough Sleeping and Homelessness" by clicking on the image below.

Housing First Report

Click here to download

Centre for Social Justice