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Mr. Clappison: We support the new clause which, as the Minister acknowledges, builds on legislation passed by the previous Government. The important point is that it deals with those involved in the criminal offence of facilitating illegal entry. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) is germane. We are talking about criminal racketeers who knowingly bring people into Britain for gain. That is a serious matter. If the courts feel that it needs to be visited by a higher sentence than is currently available, it is right that we should legislate for a higher sentence of 10 years. It is worth bearing in mind that, in many cases, such criminal racketeering is on a highly organised basis.

There is a suspicion that the scale of this activity is much greater than the number of convictions recorded for this type of activity would suggest. It can be no more than a suspicion because there are no statistics, but there is certainly suspicion that the number of convictions is relatively low in relation to the scale of activity which is probably going on. It is good to have a higher maximum sentence, but that should be accompanied by vigorous enforcement of the law by all agencies concerned, including the police.

In Committee, the Minister said that he was engaged in co-operation with the European authorities and Europol in an effort to counter such matters. We urge the Government to take the matter seriously. We shall be looking for results from that co-operation in the form of more convictions for this type of serious offence which is very much against the public interest.

Mr. Allan: I support the new clause. Human trafficking is disgusting, but it often gets lost because drug trafficking or illegal smuggling attract more attention. Human trafficking inflicts misery and even death on the people who suffer it. For example, people brought in on lorries have been found to be in a dangerous condition and some have perished in transit, so it is legitimate for the Government to target the problem.

There is a difference, however, between offences under section 25 of the Immigration Act 1971 and those under some of the other forms of prevention of entry. Those forms include the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act 1987 and section 8 of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, which offers a strict liability way to deal with people working illegally after they arrive in the United Kingdom. Both those measures share similar aims, such as to prevent gang masters bringing in gangs of illegal labourers. Strict liability offences do not require the demonstration of intent, whereas offences under section 25 of the 1971 Act do. We believe that that is often a better route to follow.

I hope that the Government will remember that we strongly support action under section 25 of the 1971 Act to deal with people proven to be traffickers with intent and that, when we criticise some of the other strict

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liability offences, they are not tempted to claim that we are soft on illegal entrants and illegal working. We want the provisions to be strengthened and used more thoroughly in the context of an intelligence-led approach to dealing with gang masters who bring people into the country illegally to work in sweatshops.

We are worried that some of the other strict liability offences may lead to a diminution in the penalties levied against such people. The prosecuting authorities may go for strict liability offences, such as are available under section 8 of the 1996 Act or the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act 1987--which this Bill broadens to include lorry drivers--because they are easier to prove, rather than opting for prosecution of acts of intent as defined in section 25 of the 1971 Act and which we hope the new clause will make even more effective.

I hope that the Minister will respect the distinction that we draw between offences committed with intent and those committed under strict liability. We support the greater use of an intelligence-led approach to hitting the real target--the human traffickers who breach not only immigration controls but risk the lives of people in desperate circumstance who are drawn into a web of pain to secure illegal entry.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): Human trafficking is evil, and the new clause expresses the Government's attempt to deal with the exploitation of refugees. That is to be welcomed, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will clarify an element of the proposals that has been much discussed in the media. It has been suggested that a humanitarian who brings into this country a person escaping from oppression or torture might be found guilty of a criminal offence under the Bill. Will my hon. Friend confirm that, if refugees declare themselves to be such at a port of entry and apply for asylum there, they will not be considered clandestine and that no humanitarian in such circumstances will be committing an offence?

Mr. Wardle: I am sure that the House supports the new clause and I do not intend to detain hon. Members for more than a moment. However, will the Minister say whether the seven-year sentence has applied since the 1971 Act was introduced, or has it been amended subsequently? If my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) is correct in suspecting that there has been a great increase in racketeering--that is my impression, and I believe that it may be the Minister's also--is an uplift in the sentence from seven to 10 years a sufficient deterrent to the professional racketeers that we are trying to warn off?

Also, can the Minister give the House an idea of the number of convictions for this offence which have been secured in the past couple of years? If he cannot do so now, I hope that he will be able to in due course.

Mr. Bottomley: Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle), I seek information on the pattern of sentencing and the number of convictions. That would allow us to see whether raising the sentence from seven years to 10 is a demonstration change made in Parliament or a real change on the ground.

Secondly, is there any kind of bounty system? If some people undertake illegal commerce for gain, it is likely that others might wish to gain small amounts of money

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for information that would lead to detection. It seems odd to pay large amounts for trials and to keep people in jail but not to use some imagination and some small sums of money to make people suspicious of those around them who may be involved in illegal activity.

Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful to the various Members who have welcomed the increase in sentence. Racketeering and trade in human misery is increasing, as the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) said, and we need to ensure that the law against racketeering is vigorously enforced. We need an intelligence-led approach, and, since entering government, we have encouraged the security services to co-operate with their contacts in other European and eastern European countries so that we can increase our information from those countries. Our co-operation with various countries is improving and we continue to work hard on it. Members of the immigration service and the Immigration and Nationality Directorate have made various visits to build on contacts as well as maintaining contacts with Europol and other Governments.

I have met Ministers from various countries and have visited countries in central Europe and I have encouraged them to take the initiative and to build on the gathering of intelligence about facilitation that takes place through their countries. In particular, much of the trade is directed through central Europe. Much co-operation is occurring, and convictions are being achieved in other European countries as a result of the exchange of information that we have generated.

We are also trying to disrupt and discredit traffickers. It is sometimes difficult to achieve a conviction because of lack of evidence. However, we may be able to disrupt the trade, and trade is falling off in several places, although I cannot go into detail on that.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) for his welcome for the new clause. Traffickers and gang masters are a serious problem, and we need an array of laws in order to deal with them. My hon. Friend the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) asked about those who bring in refugees for humanitarian reasons, perhaps those who are fleeing for their lives. The only offence is to facilitate the entry of an asylum seeker or someone seeking refuge under the European convention on human rights if it is done for gain. It is not an offence to do so for humanitarian purposes. Provided that the asylum seeker makes a proper and honest claim as soon as he or she arrives, the person would not be prosecuted.

The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) asked whether seven to 10 years was enough. We are advised that it is. The courts have asked for an increase because of the increasing sophistication of racketeers coming before the courts. We will monitor the sentence and, if it proves to be insufficient, we will consider increasing it further.

4.15 pm

There is clear evidence that because people trafficking can be very profitable, criminal gangs are moving away from dealing in drugs to dealing in people. The people concerned want to be part of the exercise, so it is easy to

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get money out of them. The organisation of those trips across Europe to Britain and other European countries is very sophisticated, and large operations often involve contacts between different gangs in different countries who all take a share of the profits. We are monitoring closely the extent to which contacts are developing between those criminal gangs. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the figures for last year's convictions, but I shall obtain that information and write to him.

The hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) asked whether bounties were offered in return for information. I suspect that that happens on a small scale. He is right to say that there may be grounds for developing that practice, and I shall further consider that idea.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.


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