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Lord Alli: I would like to speak to Amendments Nos. 322A, 322B, 326A, 326B, 330A and 330B, which are grouped with Amendment No. 322. The group of amendments deals with two specific sets of issues. The first is to ensure that all trafficking cases involving children are referred to the High Court and therefore attract higher sentences. The second is to set a minimum tariff for a second offence.

First, let me deal with the reasoning behind why I want trafficking cases involving children referred to the High Court. As the clause stands, offences involving children could attract the lower sentences given in the magistrates' courts of six months maximum or a fine. Research has shown that, over the past few years—in particular, the past seven years—children have been increasingly trafficked into the UK and forced into prostitution.

Trafficking is a serious abuse of human rights. On top of the exploitation that the child often suffers as a result of being trafficked, the experience itself often involves rape, and sexual and physical violence. As traffic victims are predominantly 13 year-olds to 17 year-olds, that

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group has a particularly strong need for legislation that gives adequate protection. I know that the Minister has much sympathy with the issue, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say on the subject.

I shall move to a more difficult issue—the setting of a minimum tariff. I understand why courts resent Parliament putting tariffs in legislation, but what can the mitigating circumstances be of a second offence for a person trafficking someone aged under 18? There is the argument that minimum sentences take away the power of judicial discretion to pass the sentence that judges believe appropriate to a case. I am rather glad that a number of lawyers have left the Committee to have their dinner.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: Some remain!

Lord Alli: I know. Believe you me, I am coming to you!

The sentencing and offences unit at the Home Office states that minimum sentences have to be issued for what it describes as,

    "very serious offences which give rise to particular public concern".

I believe that the offences do just that.

Fundamentally, a minimum sentence still enables a judge to pronounce a different sentence where he finds that there are exceptional circumstances, either in relation to the offence or the offender. In such a case, a judge must explain to the open court what the exceptional circumstances are and why the minimum sentence is not being imposed.

I suspect that those are the very arguments that my noble and learned friend's colleagues are just about to deploy to justify minimum sentences in other circumstances. I hope that at least I will be consistent in voicing my support for those moves, and I hope that he will be consistent in showing his support for what I am proposing. But I know that he is a skilled lawyer, and no doubt he will come up with a finely tuned legal argument as to why minimum tariffs are acceptable when he thinks that they are right, and unacceptable when I think that they are right. Or perhaps he will surprise me and agree to all that I am proposing.

I am pleased, however, that the Bill attaches a maximum possible sentencing of 14 years to trafficking offences. However, the trafficking offences are predicated on the commission of a "relevant" offence as set out in Clauses 54 to 60. The offences are serious, and I hope that my noble and learned friend will look carefully at what I have had to say. I have put forward my arguments for the amendments, but in the end I believe that we have to send a clear signal that trafficking in children is at least as serious as trafficking in drugs.

Lord Monson: I am open-minded about most of the amendments in the group but, despite the persuasive arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Alli, I could not support Amendments Nos. 322B, 326B or 330B. Members of the Committee with legal qualifications will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that minimum sentences are essentially alien to our law.

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Minimum periods of disqualification for motoring offences are a different matter, because they involve neither incarceration nor a drain on the public purse.

It is fashionable in liberal circles to deride the present Home Secretary, Mr David Blunkett. I do not join in that derision, but I strongly disapprove of his proposal to impose de facto minimum sentences for various, rather random, categories of murder, leaving minimum discretion to the trial judge. In a much more minor way, the amendments I specify fall into the same category and I certainly could not support them.

Baroness Walmsley: I support Amendments Nos. 322A, 326A and 330A, which acknowledge the seriousness of the crime of trafficking with regard to children. Such crime should certainly always go to the Crown Court. Throughout our proceedings on the Bill, I have argued for children to be treated differently, both when they are the abusers and when they are abused. Their extra vulnerability sets them apart from other victims, and the courts should recognise that when dealing with such crimes.

Trafficking of children is on the increase. We need a penalty that acts as a deterrent. We need to send a message that it will not be tolerated and, if detected, will be treated as a very serious crime. As the noble Lord, Lord Alli, said, to abduct a child is a serious abuse of its human rights, apart from the other abuses that often go with it. I want the Bill strengthened in terms of how it protects children, so I urge the Minister to accept Amendments Nos. 322A, 326A and 330A.

I am afraid that I do not agree with the other amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Alli, because I do not believe that imposing minimum sentences is a good idea. The noble Lord, Lord Alli, knows that I will not support that proposal. I prefer to leave the matter to the judge. Aggravating factors—for instance, there being only one offence, rape, physical and sexual violence and so forth—will mean that the sentence given will be towards the top end of the range. I do not believe that we need to specify that. Anyone guilty of such acts should be given a sentence that reflects the seriousness of the crime, which is what normally happens in a court of law. I believe that we can leave it to the courts, within the framework of the sentencing guidelines, to make that decision.

Baroness Blatch: I support what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Alli. I really am breaking all the moulds today! I do not believe that there is a more heinous crime than trafficking in children; passing children around the world like parcels for the gratification of, often, older men. It is too awful even to contemplate. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alli, that if someone has been proven in court to have committed the offence twice and is coming into court for the third time for that same offence, it is hard to envisage what should be more lenient than the minimum sentence set by the noble Lord.

I know of all the sensitivities which surround our having any view about minimum sentences, but it is for Parliament to set frameworks. That is our role. If, after full consideration of both Houses of Parliament and before the Bill receives Royal Assent, we genuinely

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take the view that the crime is so serious that we want to do what the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has advocated for many years in this House in relation to the trafficking of children for the sexual pleasure of people around the world, we now have the opportunity to do something about it.

I want to put a question to the noble and learned Lord, the answer to which could alter my view about whether I support the noble Lord, Lord Alli, which I want to do. What evidence do we have about how the cases are treated in court? Are there any historical records. As the noble Lord, Lord Alli, said, I trust the courts to impose a sentence of seven years upwards, depending on the seriousness of the crime. The offence of trafficking in children not once, not twice, but for a third time, is so serious that in my book seven years minimum is about right. The courts should be left to determine how much longer in addition should be imposed.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: I support what the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has just said and I support the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Alli. I added my name to the amendments as a result of a debate held in this House about 18 months ago. I was fortunate enough to win a balloted debate and I used it to raise the subject of trafficking.

Fortuitously, the debate falls during the week when we will commemorate the life of Lord Wilberforce. He spoke during that debate in your Lordships' House—one of the last speeches he made here—about this modern form of slavery. Standing as he did in the footsteps of his great ancestor, his words about the need to do something about the issue struck many of us most powerfully.

It was with great pleasure that I went with my noble friend Lord Hylton to see the Minister, who has been most receptive on the issue. I congratulate him and the Government on the responsive way in which they have dealt with the concerns raised during our debates over the past 18 months. The Bill therefore generally sends out the right signal, but as always those of us who want to see strenuous measures taken to deal with the issue will push a little harder. I do not support the Holy Grail, often expressed by many lawyers, that we should not indulge ourselves occasionally in minimum sentences.

It is not unreasonable to put such provisions on the statute book. After all, when my noble friend Lord Hylton—I was in the other place at the time—introduced a measure to make it a criminal offence prosecutable within this jurisdiction to abuse children overseas, we were told that we could not do that; it was without precedent. There was a precedent; it was torture. Eventually, despite the opposition of the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, the measure was incorporated in statute.

I do not therefore believe that this measure will shake the foundations of your Lordships' House or of the legal establishment. It will instead send a useful signal. As the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said, we need to send

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signals about how serious we are about the issue. It involves the taking away of the innocence of children, a point made when with representatives of World Vision, Anti-Slavery and the Jubilee Campaign, I was able to see the Minister with my noble friend Lord Hylton. They were extremely grateful for the positive way in which he responded at that time.

The amendments are good and will add to what the Government are already doing. Even if they cannot be accepted today, I hope that between now and the Report stage the Minister will give further consideration to the representations made to him and to the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Alli, which should receive our support.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: I want to address the question of minimum sentences. It should not be confused with recent pronouncements on the tariff where there is a mandatory life sentence and the recent pronouncements of the Home Secretary that the minimum period that a person has to serve before his sentence is considered by the Parole Board, but within the context that a life sentence has been passed on a mandatory basis. We should not get confused about it.

Even though these are heinous crimes, those who call for minimum sentences always have in mind the main conspirator; the person who is the organiser. Often tactically there is a reason for prosecuting the minnows in a conspiracy such as trafficking or in drugs. It may well be that if minimum sentences are imposed, prosecutions will not be brought against, say, the girlfriend of someone who happens to be peripherally involved but just can be said to be a party to the conspiracy.

Every case is different. Judges are not irresponsible people with liberal inclinations. I assure your Lordships that often they do not have liberal inclinations. They do not pass light sentences. Trust them and do not introduce minimum sentences in any aspect of our criminal law.

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