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Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West): Although I welcome today's statement by my right hon. Friend, the real significance of the past few weeks has been the commitment offered by the American Government—and, more importantly, by the President—to a Palestinian state. Those of us who have been involved in the middle east for more than 30 years know that the Israel-Palestine question is the core of the middle east problem, and that only a resolution of it will provide general peace. We have been hoping for an American President who recognises the need for a Palestinian state, and the significance of the recent statement cannot be overstated. If Colin Powell arrives quickly and the Americans remain truly engaged, the Palestinians will begin to believe that the President and the American people really do recognise their right to a state. That would go a long way towards building peace.

The Prime Minister: I am sure that my hon. Friend is right about that. The commitment of the entire international community to a viable Palestinian state is, as I have said, one ray of hope in this ghastly situation.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Some people view Yasser Arafat as being opposed to suicide bombings but unable to prevent them; others see him as being in favour of them and unwilling to prevent them. The Prime Minister has access to better sources of information than most of us: to which of those views does he subscribe?

The Prime Minister: I subscribe to the view that, if there is a proper peace process, the Palestinians are willing to engage in it. Although I concur with criticisms of the Palestinian Authority's inability, or refusal, to control terrorism properly, we have to recognise that we will be dealing with them, and that we cannot choose which of their members we will deal with. The truthful answer to the hon. Gentleman's point is that the real danger is that, as long as the bloodshed and violence continues, a growing indifference will come about—in fact, it is happening—to innocent blood being spilt on both sides.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. I remind the House that early next week a full day's debate will be held on this subject.

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Point of Order

4.37 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The very welcome news emerged on Monday that Sinn Fein-IRA have undertaken a second act of decommissioning. I am well aware that a great many people, including me, had been predicting for some months that such an act would take place in advance of the Irish elections; indeed, I first said so in this House in December. Nevertheless, this is an important event, about which Members on both sides of the House would like to question the Government. That desire will have been greatly enhanced by the Prime Minister's refusal during Question Time today to give straight answers to questions about the important and disreputable proposal for an unconditional amnesty for terrorists in Northern Ireland.

I do not know whether you, Mr. Speaker, have received a proposal from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that he make such a statement to the House— I hope so. If not, I fear that the Government's refusal to come before the House and discuss the matter will be interpreted throughout the country as evidence that they have something rather shameful to hide in their dealings with Sinn Fein-IRA.

Mr. Speaker: The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has not approached me, but he will have heard the hon. Gentleman's comments.

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Children (Safeguards for Unaccompanied Travel)

4.39 pm

Margaret Moran (Luton, South): I beg to move,

The Bill is intended to enable parents to register their arrangements with immigration authorities at the entry application stage and to enable registration to serve as a referral to agencies such as social services, health and education, so as to ensure that children receive the services to which they are entitled and that their circumstances receive proper attention. Establishing a tracking system would address an existing gap in immigration procedures when children travel to the United Kingdom without their parents.

The recent Victoria Climbié case demonstrates all too clearly how children who enter the United Kingdom without their parents can fall through the net provided by health, education and child protection services—with tragic consequences in some cases, as in that one.

In some countries, such as those in west Africa, it is common practice for children to be cared for in the extended family. Over the years, that practice has developed to include children travelling abroad to be educated in the care of family members and others. When a child travels abroad, as in Victoria Climbié's case, parents rely on relatives or friends to keep in touch and to provide them with information about their children.

The limited and expensive communications systems in some countries, such as those in west Africa, coupled with poverty, make it difficult for parents to monitor their child's welfare away from home, which increases the child's vulnerability. That practice is also vulnerable to corruption, as traffickers obtain children through deception, often with offers of education and employment, as was identified in the Home Office police research series paper No. 125.

Children's charities, such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, believe that children unaccompanied by their parents are particularly vulnerable to child trafficking when they leave their country of origin and on arrival in another country. They are aware that children are trafficked into the United Kingdom and other European countries for the purpose of prostitution, child pornography, organised begging and benefit fraud.

Children are vulnerable to traffickers because of poverty in their country of origin, the low status of girls, unstable family life and child abuse. By its very nature, trafficking and the commercial exploitation of children is largely a hidden activity, so it is very difficult to investigate abuse, track victims, prosecute offenders and assess the extent of the problem.

My local authority admits that many children may enter the country in that way and arrive in Luton. It believes that such invisible children represent an important issue. The extent of the problem is emerging. A Home Office report on trafficking identified the former eastern European countries and west Africa as the main countries of origin. A significant number of children, especially from west Africa, are brought into the United Kingdom

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as unaccompanied asylum seekers and are trafficked onwards to other European countries for the purpose of prostitution.

West Sussex social services report that, between 1995 and 2000, 59 unaccompanied asylum seekers disappeared from children's homes. In September 2001, the Government published a national plan on commercial sexual exploitation, in which trafficking was highlighted as an urgent area for action. The White Paper, "Secure Borders, Safe Haven", sets out a number of proposals to address the problem, including a new criminal offence for trafficking and preventive action in the countries of origin, all of which is to be welcomed.

The EU communication, "On a Common Policy on Illegal Immigration", is also welcome. It recommends financial support for action in the countries of origin and transit to help to strengthen their capacity to combat trafficking. That includes developing public registration structures, improving document security and deploying liaison officers. It also recommends introducing uniform visa and security standards to improve the security of travel documents, including incorporating photographs to link the person to the visa or entry clearance certificate.

The United Kingdom could take the lead in the EU to ensure that the European Commission's proposals are implemented. However, the NSPCC and other children charities believe that the issue of children who travel into the United Kingdom without their parents remains a problem. The protection of those children must be prioritised. Children entering the UK who are not ordinarily resident here and do not travel with their parents should be safeguarded by a tracking system.

The recommendations made by Mrs. Justice Bracewell in the case of R (2) 1999 highlighted those concerns. The case involved a five-year-old Romanian girl who had arrived at a port of entry accompanied by an adult unrelated to her. Summing up, Mrs. Justice Bracewell said that the case was a matter of serious concern with implications far beyond the circumstances. She suggested that whenever a child accompanied by a non-related adult arrived at a port of entry in the United Kingdom, the immigration service should inform the Department of Health within 72 hours. The Department would in turn inform the relevant social services department of the presence and address in the UK of a privately fostered child under section 66 of the Children Act 1989 and the Children (Private Arrangements for Fostering) Regulations 1991.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), then Home Secretary, recognised the advantage of immigration officers' informing the Department of Health of the arrival of such a child. Unfortunately, however, he rejected the proposal, largely on grounds of cost. In the light of the Victoria Climbié case, I believe that the recommendation should be reconsidered.

Tracking all newly arrived children in the United Kingdom would be an enormous task, and it is not a realistic option. I propose that children entering the UK who are not ordinarily resident here and do not travel with their parents could and should be safeguarded by a simple tracking system. It need not involve the creation of a new administrative system; it could be built on existing immigration processes. A simple flag system could provide an indication on travel documents that a child was not travelling with its parents, and that details of the

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arrangements were available. In addition, there should be a UK requirement for all children entering the country to hold their own passports. Visa or entry certificates should incorporate photographs, and demonstrate a link between adult and child, for example by adding the child's passport number and fingerprints to the adult's visa.

An awareness campaign is also needed in west Africa, and in other countries where there are a large number of unaccompanied children, to alert parents to the risk of child trafficking, and to inform them of the existence of a tracking system and the necessary immigration procedures involved in entering the European Union.

Such a system might not deter the most determined traffickers, who use forged travel documents. That is a complex problem requiring sophisticated systems of detection. The system could, however, safeguard the majority of children who travel without their parents. Child trafficking is a despicable activity, and ending it must be a Government priority. This relatively simple measure could make an important contribution to the protection of vulnerable children from the crime.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Margaret Moran, Mark Tami, Ann Keen, Fiona Mactaggart, Helen Jackson, Mr. Hilton Dawson, Kevin Brennan, Ms Meg Munn, Ms Debra Shipley and Ms Oona King.

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