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Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I am pleased to have secured this debate after many weeks of trying in the ballot. Over the past five years, the problem of child sex trafficking has reared its ugly head in West Sussex, largely because of the location of Gatwick airport--this is often forgotten--in what is a predominantly rural county. However, it is a problem that could spread to the rest of the United Kingdom. I hope that you will forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I speak at some length about the background, because it is a complicated issue.
As I see it, the problem is threefold. First, it reveals a serious loophole in the law. Police have been powerless to bring convictions against international traffickers in human beings, which is what this amounts to. In the eyes of the Foreign Secretary, it should contain a Government health warning, because it touches on the problem of asylum, an issue that dare not speak its name for the duration of the run-up to the general election, at least in the view of the Commission for Racial Equality and various Ministers. However, I make no apology for mentioning it today, given the direct threat that the inadequacy and failure of the present system poses to the lives and well-being of scores of young women from west Africa who arrive in West Sussex.
Secondly, it is a problem that needs the involvement of the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development and International Social Service, in taking preventive action to protect young women embarking on the perilous journeys from their families in Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
Thirdly, and more pertinently to my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight), who is present, the problem has made an impact on the county of West Sussex, particularly, unwittingly, on the social services department of our county council. I pay tribute to West Sussex social services department, which has devoted significant resources and time to the problem, in collaboration with other agencies, particularly Sussex police. However, it is costing West Sussex social services department £1 million a year--a cost that that department can ill afford, given the many pressures on its budget due to the fact that our county has a larger number of pensioners than any other in the country. That is a nice problem to have, but it places additional financial pressures on social services and on the national health service.
I am glad that the Minister of State, Department of Health is responding to the debate, as I know that he is acquainted with the problem, having been to Chichester to speak to West Sussex social services officials and councillors. Colleagues from West Sussex will want to participate in the debate on behalf of all our constituents so that we can talk about the pressure being experienced by the social services department.
Recently, we have heard much about suspected child slave trade ships in west Africa. The Nigerian ship, the Etireno, sailing from Benin, was the focus of a big press story last week. Fortunately, it turned out not to have the dire consequences that had been feared for the future
Since 1990, 479 child asylum seekers have arrived at Gatwick airport in West Sussex and been placed in the care of West Sussex social services. Since 1995, 64 of those children have gone missing. Forty of them are young women who travelled from Nigeria--most are Nigerians, although some are from Sierra Leone. Strong evidence shows that they end up as prostitutes in northern Italy, predominantly in Turin. West Sussex social services became aware of the pattern of disappearing minors in 1997, the rate of which increased 50 per cent. year-on-year until the end of last year.
I pay tribute to the officers of West Sussex social services, especially the child asylum team officers such as Lynne Chitty, who have worked on the problem for some while. They are devoted to helping the young women, and provide a rapid response team at Gatwick airport to deal with the girls when they first arrive. I also pay tribute to the work of the dedicated colleagues in social services, in the children's homes where some of the girls are taken and the foster parents with whom some of them are placed.
A BBC "Southern Eye" documentary called "Lost Girls", which recounted some of the girls' stories, helped to raise the profile of this much-neglected issue a few months ago. Nigerian girls as young as 12 leave their families because they are abducted or to seek better prospects abroad. In some cases, the girls' families sell them to traffickers so that the girls can raise money from working overseas.
Once in the hands of the criminal traffickers, the girls are subjected to hideous voodoo rituals. One girl, who was traced to Italy by social services and police, revealed some of the details. Girls are subjected to macabre voodoo ceremonies involving up to 50 cuts about their bodies with razor blades. Things are placed beneath their skin, or so they feel. They can be taken into a room where there are human heads on spikes, and forced to drink the blood of dead women. In fear of their lives they are forced to do what they are told by the orchestrators of those evil practices and forced not to tell anyone about what is going on.
In the hands of the international pimps--the only way to describe them--the girls are flown to Gatwick airport, provided with false passports and given a story in order to claim political asylum. The teenagers are often dressed in the same clothes, have similar luggage, and a similar script from which to quote. In some cases, they arrive with one of the pimp's henchmen who claims to be a parent or guardian. In fear of their lives, the girls dare not deny that.
Some girls are under the impression that a better life awaits them--some expect to get jobs in supermarkets that will enable them to send money back to their families in Nigeria. Some have a slightly better idea of what insalubrious fate awaits them, but fear the consequences of what will happen if they do not go along with the traffickers who profit from this trade in human beings.
If the girls are under 18, they become the responsibility of the social services department, and are placed by West Sussex social services either in children's homes or with foster parents, some of whom are my constituents. As I said, some of the girls are only 12 years old.
In a matter of days in some cases, or up to four-and-a-half months in others, despite the best endeavours of social services, 40 of the girls disappeared, often in the dead of night or at gunpoint, picked up on the beach. Under the Children Act 1989, it is not an option to detain girls in secure accommodation, which might solve the problem. They are therefore free to go whenever they like--although they are obviously vulnerable to the evil men who are cajoling them to go on to terrible things. Most of the traffickers come down from London. There is evidence that, via the port of Dover, they cross to Belgium and then go on to Turin. Once in Turin, the girls are sold on to madams for a large fee and face a life of prostitution.
By that stage, a lot has been invested in the business. The traffickers will have paid for flights and travel, they may have paid fees to the parents and they might have paid for false documents. In many cases, they will have had to bribe immigration officials in Nigeria. The girls are therefore told that a lot of money will be required if they want to buy their freedom. In some cases, that has amounted to up to £38,000--an enormous sum that they have no hope of raising. In fear of their lives from the voodoo curses that they think have been placed on them if they do not obey instructions, and in fear of their lives because a large price hangs over their heads if they do not do what they are told, they are reduced to a life of prostitution in northern Italy. Few return; many are subjected to beatings, and at least seven prostitutes from Africa have been murdered in Turin during the past few years.
As I said, it is a modern version of the slave trade coupled with a grotesque modern version of the sex trade, which is wholly unacceptable. What is being done about that, and why is it happening? First, why are the girls not taken directly to their end destination in Italy? The Italians made their asylum-seeker laws somewhat tougher some years ago, and the United Kingdom is seen as the soft touch to bring the girls into Europe. Gatwick airport has been alighted upon as a suitable disembarkation point. The United Kingdom is seen as a soft touch by international criminals trafficking in human beings--profiting from human beings--so the problem comes to the United Kingdom, and specifically to west Sussex.
As I said, the police have been heavily involved with the problem; they have worked closely with social services and immigration authorities. A pattern of such abductions was established back in 1996, and operation Newbridge was set up by the Sussex police. They spent two years intensively investigating the matter and gathering evidence. They sent officers to Italy, liaising
The National Crime Squad operation, Operation Egypt, which took place after operation Newbridge, was concluded last July as a result of the Crown Prosecution Service not supporting a prosecution against one of the trafficking suspects due to lack of appropriate legislation. Amazingly, strictly speaking it is not illegal to traffic in humans if they are apparently compliant--as the girls are, because they are in fear of their lives if they do not say what they have been told to say. If those criminals were trafficking drugs, a whole host of laws could be brought to bear upon them, and they would hopefully be in jail. Due to a loophole in the law, the fact that they are trafficking human beings means that they escape conviction. That is an obscene and strange anomaly in our legal system. The police are more frustrated than anyone, and have made many complaints about the weaknesses in the law. Superintendent Gaylor points out that we appear at present to have little contact with the girls' country of origin, despite the fact that there is clear evidence of corruption among airport officials in Nigeria.
Immigration authorities have sent staff to Lagos to identify potentially trafficked girls, and for a short while that resulted in a reduction in the number of those arriving at our airport. However, that was not sustainable, and staff who were sent over were subject to intimidation and threats, so the sending of such staff stopped.
The police will say that we must update legislation and review immigration regulations in order to frustrate the traffickers and protect the young women. The acts that we would consider to be offences are not sufficiently covered by the Sexual Offences Act 1956. Any changes must be joined up internationally to take such offences into account. In this case, the offence begins in west Africa, moves through the UK and ends up in Europe. That is the complexity of the crime.
West Sussex needs national help and Sussex police require more support from the Home Office. So far, the Home Office has declined to take any action, and that has only hindered local investigations. The Home Office has been cautious about attempts to identify the girls who have gone missing and to produce publicity, because it feels that that may endanger the girls further.
Following the BBC programme, I wrote at length to the Home Secretary on 12 March. I am still awaiting a reply. The Home Office's attitude to Sussex police is that this is not their problem. However, it is a problem for us all and a moral issue that concerns us all, especially those of us who are close to the problem in West Sussex.
We must examine the experiences of other countries, particularly Australia, which introduced the Criminal Code Amendment (Slavery and Sexual Servitude) Act 1999. That contains new federal offences directed at slavery, sexual servitude and deceptive recruiting. The legislation contained flaws, particularly the reliance on witnesses' willingness to testify, and in this specific case, that is a problem because the girls dare not say anything.
There is a suggestion from Sussex police that that the facilitation of removal or exit from the United Kingdom of children who have sought political asylum, or the accompaniment of such a child, should be made a criminal offence. If there were such a law, action could be taken at the point of exit--the port of Dover or wherever--when the abductors were taking the young women to the continent.
There is no specific law against trafficking people into the UK, but those who traffic and sexually exploit women are breaking a large number of laws. Technically, however, that is not happening in West Sussex. Superintendent Gaylor recently said:
We also need closer liaison with Nigerian social services so that they take the matter seriously. We must link overseas aid programmes that exist between Britain and Nigeria in order to address the problem, which is of immense common interest to Nigeria and the UK. We must stop it happening at source in the first instance, and keep the girls safe with their families, where they belong.
We must also utilise the media in Nigeria to show that prostitution is not a way out of poverty. If families were really aware of the true fate of their children, they would do more to prevent them from leaving the country. In some cases, there is evidence that families are selling their daughters into the ghastly business.
We also need help from the High Commissioner in London. We must use International Social Service, an organisation that has been around since 1924. It has 146 branches throughout the world. It is a transnational social and criminal problem and such an organisation should do something about it. We must stop the problem at source to ensure that the girls are safe in
Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): I thank the hon. Gentleman for introducing such a debate. What he has told us is extraordinary. I am linking the problem with the so-called cocoa slaves and the slave ship that left Nigeria. Has the hon. Gentleman contacted UNICEF? In respect of the cocoa slaves, it was curious that UNICEF appeared to know about the children. It thought that the children were on the ship, but nothing else has happened or has been done. Is the problem not something with which the United Nations organisations should be concerned?
Mr. Loughton : I agree with the hon. Lady. Before she came into the Chamber, I referred to those whom I believe are called the chocolate slaves. It is a problem that hit the press recently and is one with which UN organisations and International Social Service should be involved. West Sussex social services has liaised with such organisations and other agencies. I have not done so personally, but I know that social services has been exhaustive in working with people to deal with the problem. The hon. Lady is right about which organisation should be dealing with it.
I realise that I have taken up a lot of time, but this is a complex issue, the details of which I want to put firmly on the record before the Minister and others respond to my remarks. This terrible business is an unfair and uncalled for burden on West Sussex social services because it is happening through Gatwick airport. I pay tribute to the excellent work of the social services department; to John Dixon, the director of West Sussex social services, who raised the problem with West Sussex Members of Parliament some time ago; to Councillor Barry Mack, who has been a most exceptional chairman of the social services committee over the past four years and to the child asylum team, especially Lynne Chitty, who feels passionately about the girls. She said recently:
There are big pressures on social services accommodation in our county and on the availability and cost of home helps. There are staff shortages and extra cost factors associated with employment and living expenses in the south-east. The Minister will also know about the particular pressures that feed through to the local health service because of the elderly population. That is why, in spite of the fact that Worthing hospital is an excellent hospital with dedicated staff and in spite of the Government's paranoia about setting targets rather than achieving results, we now have the seventh longest waiting times of any hospital trust out of the 259 in England and Wales. The average waiting time has worsened by around a quarter over the past four years. That is intrinsically connected with the problems of the extra costs posed by an older population. A recent letter from the chairmen of social services from the counties of West Sussex, Kent and Surrey stated:
The Local Government Association, together with the Society of County Treasurers, the Society of Municipal Treasurers and the Association of Directors of Social Services, carried out a survey. Of 150 local authorities, 146 responded. Of those, 85 per cent. said that in the current year they will overspend in their social services budget. More interestingly for this debate, 64 per cent. said that children's services were the most under pressure.
The biggest problem is in children's services. In West Sussex, the pressure is compounded by child asylum seekers, on which we are second only to Kent. In West Sussex, the number of children being looked after has increased by 15 per cent. over the past year.
The Minister complimented the children's services provided by West Sussex. He knows what a great job our social services department does in almost impossible circumstances. That has been achieved at a cost--a great cost, because West Sussex now spends 10 per cent. more than its SSA on social services. In the past four years, the increase in service demands on West Sussex social services has cost us £48.8 million, but the increase in Government funding has been just £22.8 million. Over the past four years there has therefore been a shortfall in Government funding for social services of £26 million.
The Minister will no doubt cite in response Government grants for West Sussex and other, similar authorities. However, such grants are predominantly directed at new responsibilities and are intended to relieve pressure, supposedly, on health, especially winter pressures and mental health, and for children leaving care.
Demands on social services in West Sussex and in many other authorities throughout the country are at breaking point. Raiding the budgets of other departments or excessive increases in council tax are unsustainable measures. Nevertheless, West Sussex is doing an outstanding job in difficult circumstances. It is doing what the Government require of it and has also made efficiency savings of £14.3 million over the past four years.
The recent suggestion in the press that the Government may abolish the area cost adjustment--one of the few measures that recognises, although inadequately, those extra pressures--fills my county's social services department with absolute horror. That is one of the few measures that compensates for the extra pressures that we face.
I ask the Minister to recognise the state of social services in West Sussex, and to consider providing serious extra financial support for the specific problem of trafficking in children, in which West Sussex is playing an unwitting role as the warehouse for international criminals--a role that contributes £1 million to the cost of running social services.
Plainly, the law needs to be changed; we have a moral and international duty to stamp out that horrible business. It is absurd that we could catch criminals if they trafficked in drugs but cannot touch them because they are trafficking in human beings in those bizarre circumstances. That is an especially sinister abuse of the asylum system that again underlines the weakness of the United Kingdom regime and how we are seen by the international criminal fraternity as a soft touch. That obscene trade, which has no place in this century or the previous one, is profiting from that weakness. It is not fair or right that West Sussex has to bear the brunt of that.
There is one bit of good news, which is that so far this year, none of the girls in the care of West Sussex social services has been abducted. Long may that continue. I hope that raising the profile of the issue, as the media, West Sussex county council, Sussex police, colleagues from the county and I have done during recent months, has helped to get the message across to those criminals that we are on to them and will not tolerate such abuse of the system in our county. However, the risk remains that they may set up that obscene trade elsewhere in the United Kingdom--there is no reason why they could not do so. We must be aware of the problem across the
Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) on securing the debate. It is disgraceful that the problem should be occurring in this country in the 21st century and disappointing that the Home Office, in particular--although the problem covers the territory of other Departments--has declined to give attention and assistance to solve it. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, at the root of the problem is the need to change the law because the police, while aware of the problem and the culprits, have been unable to address the issue. I hope that the full airing of the facts given by my hon. Friend will cause the issue to be properly addressed.
I shall focus on the knock-on effects of the general underfunding of social services in West Sussex and especially of the increased child care obligations--although in many ways it is meaningless to separate the territory, much of the extra expense has been on child care. I repeat the tributes that have been paid to Councillor Barry Mack, the chairman of the social services committee, who has done a model job for the rest of the country, tackling major problems with inadequate resources, to John Dixon, the head of the department of social services in West Sussex, and to Lynne Chitty for her work on the particular problem of these poor girls. All three have played important roles in these problematic areas.
Social services funding fell by 7 per cent. in real terms in the six years from 1993-99. There has been a significant transfer of extra responsibilities from central Government to local government, especially in the area of child care, without the resources to finance it. There have been impressive efficiency savings, particularly in West Sussex, and transfers from other sources of funding. Part of the greater-than-desirable increase in council tax has gone to finance extra social services requirements.
In the past three years, however, services that formed part of the necessary care of the elderly in West Sussex and other local authorities have had to be withdrawn. The evidence is there to see. Residential homes are closing, which has a knock-on effect on acute hospitals and causes bed blocking. The Government have financed less than half the additional social security responsibilities placed on local authorities.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham referred to the detailed report and survey undertaken by the Association of Directors of Social Services, the Local Government Association and the societies of county and municipal treasurers. Some
As a result of the extremely effective reorganisation undertaken by Councillor Barry Mack and John Dixon, West Sussex has made savings of £40 million over the past three years in terms of improved efficiency, but that has gone nowhere near far enough to match the additional burdens that the authority is required to finance. The survey also showed that most social security departments are restructuring and withdrawing services again, particularly for the elderly.
In the first three-year settlement in 1998, large sums were effectively taken away from many social services departments, particularly in the south--where, as my hon. Friend pointed out, we have the particular problem of an ageing population--and transferred to other authorities, particularly in the north. The Government have funded West Sussex social services for less than half its extra responsibilities. In addition, the human trafficking tragedy has resulted in costs of £1 million being incurred.
Other social services departments have similar problems. The survey shows that 64 per cent. of local authorities are having to overspend, particularly on child care services. There is tangible evidence of all that.
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton): I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's arguments. He said that the Government have funded West Sussex for only half the extra statutory responsibilities that the authority has been given in relation to social services. I am completely lost as to what he is talking about. For the benefit of the Chamber, will he describe what he thinks those extra social services responsibilities are?
Mr. Flight : The additional responsibilities, to which I will come later, are largely in the area of child care. The Minister has the report from the Local Government Association and the societies of county and municipal treasurers, which sets out the territory. However, if the Minister will be patient, I shall focus towards the end of my remarks on particular additional responsibilities that have been imposed and answer his question specifically.
The Department of Health has said that it expects local authorities to develop new intermediate care services using funding included in next year's SSA and part of the £900 million that was announced for the purpose in the national health plan. From the available information, that represents about £110 million nationally from the SSA and £1.5 million specifically for West Sussex. There has been a reduction in the base promoting independence grant and there are new funding responsibilities in capital threshold, amounting to £18,500. The disregard of property for three months and responsibilities for top-up, preserved rights and
Mr. Hutton : Those are not new statutory responsibilities, which is how the hon. Gentleman described them. All those additional financial obligations, which we have required local authorities to meet next year, have been fully funded through their SSA or specific grants.
Mr. Flight : I do not think that the Minister's assertion is correct. He will be aware of strident correspondence between his Department and West Sussex social services on the issue. It is playing with words to ask whether "new" and "additional" mean the same thing. I accept the concept that the obligations are additional rather than new, but 15 per cent. of the children involved are new and need to be cared for, and there is no extra money for them. However, I shall pull out the argument later, rather than citing the individual facts in specific responses.
Generally, on an entirely non-party political level, I am asking the Minister to listen to what the experts on the ground are saying. They are not making things up and do not seek to make political points. They are suffering an acute underfunding problem. Detailed figures have been produced, and I ask him to go through them, to go again to West Sussex and to understand clearly what people are saying. It is technical territory, as he is well aware. However, the reality of what people are saying is there to be witnessed.
To return to the general points, let me say that there is tangible evidence in other areas of rising vacancies for social workers, which is due in part to low pay and in part to the stress of the job. In addition, the number of residential nursing homes that provide home beds is collapsing, in part because social services cannot afford to pay economic rates and in part because of the additional regulatory burdens that are imposed on private sector home care, which results in the withdrawal of facilities.
The fabric of social care is in danger of breaking down with a potentially costly impact on acute services, in particular as regards bed blocking. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham commented, it would be an extreme problem for us if the Government were intent on scrapping the area cost adjustment.
Since 1997, West Sussex social security essential requirements have increased by £49 million. Government funding towards that has increased by £23 million. Key measures and key problems have resulted from the 15 per cent. increase to which I referred in the number of children being looked after. There is also a 1 per cent. compounding increase in the number of people over 75 to be looked after.
On the national health front, additional tasks are required in terms of social services care in liaison with the national health service and the Department of Health. The local authority is expected to develop new partnership services. Cost efficiency savings of some £5 million have been contributed by West Sussex. In addition, as a result of the lack of central funding, the
The most serious evidence of central underfunding is the rationing of services and its impact on the elderly. Those problems have been compounded by the difficulties experienced by private sector care homes as a result of the heavy-handed imposition of minimum regulatory standards. Many private sector homes have closed, causing a major loss of capacity, which has increased the burden on the local authority and acute hospitals. The lack of care facilities for the frail and elderly is becoming a serious problem in West Sussex. The Government are now proposing--desirably--full nursing care facilities for the elderly, but they have failed to make clear how that will be funded, or to say how a distinction will be drawn between nursing care that is funded and other aspects of personal care for the elderly.
The Government are supposed to be caring for social needs. It is unacceptable that funding for the elderly and the young should be inadequate, and that fundamental problems should be worsened by the fact that the local authority has been left to deal with the specific problem of human trafficking. There is some element of pork-barrel politics in transferring money from the north to the south, but the real issue is the need to provide adequate finance for a growing elderly population and for considerable growth in child care requirements.
I conclude by asking the Minister, first, to recognise the problem of human trafficking and, secondly, to go back to West Sussex and go through the figures, so that he will recognise that there is inadequate central funding for the growing requirements of local authorities in providing social services care.
Sandra Gidley (Romsey): I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) on securing the debate. I must admit that when I was preparing for the debate, I wondered why it was a health matter, because, as has been outlined, it is a multi-departmental issue. I have been somewhat horrified to find that the very important subject of the trafficking of young girls has been superseded, to some extent, by party political broadcast and diatribe against the Government's funding of social services.
I am not here to stick up for the Government. I have slightly more respect for the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight), who was honest when he said that the funding problem stemmed from 1993. Obviously, the blame cannot be laid completely at the door of one Government, so it is a shame that the debate has been used to make political points.
Mr. Loughton : That is slightly unfair. The first 80 per cent. of my speech related entirely to the problem of trafficking. The debate was brought home specifically to West Sussex because the problem, in this form, is unique to the area. It compounds a problem of which the
Sandra Gidley : I agree that the hon. Gentleman spent a good deal of time on the issue, but I still feel that the overall debate so far has been too heavily weighted towards the issue of social services funding. There are problems with social services funding, but this is not the time to discuss them.
I wish that the point about our being a soft touch for asylum seekers had not been made. Britain is not a particularly soft touch. On the radio this morning, evidence was provided for our being at exactly the same place in the league for numbers of asylum seekers entering the country as we were four years ago. It is a shame that another chance of a cheap political point has been taken.
Dr. Tonge : Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not being a very soft touch to receive unaccompanied, sometimes very young, children at a port of entry and to see that they are properly cared for and handed to social services?
Sandra Gidley : I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, because I wanted next to refer to people who have been referred to as young women, whereas in fact the vast majority of those asylum seekers are children. I hope that I speak for everyone in the Chamber in wishing that those asylum seekers had stayed in this country. I hope that I shall never be quoted out of context on that point. The disappearance of those children means that they have had to go on to a life that no one here would wish for anyone.
The current state of affairs is a problem for West Sussex county council, which I congratulate on its thorough approach. Other councils may have similar problems, of which we are unaware, and may not have delved into them in such depth.
"know she knows." It is rare today for people to be so positive, and so determined to do something about a problem, that they put themselves and their families in danger.
My worry is about how we can be sure that the problem affects only West Sussex. Yesterday in Southampton, a huge police exercise uncovered not asylum seekers but a great many illegal immigrants. I do not know whether there could have been, among that number of people, young children who disappeared. Social services simply did not know about those people and would not have been able to help. I believe that the problem is larger than has been highlighted. I should like the Minister to give an undertaking that he will liaise with the Home Office and the Foreign Office, because the problem should be attacked on a number of levels. The Home Office should look at the legislation, which can be done fairly soon under "Setting the Boundaries--Reforming the Law on Sex Offences", and the Foreign Office needs to consider how public information can be developed in countries such as Nigeria, because young people do not know what it is that they are coming to.
In those countries, people approach girls from poor families with the promise of good jobs. The girls think that they are coming here to be maids, or even to reach the dizzy heights of a supermarket worker, and their families think that they are going to a safe place in a good country where they will have a good life. They do not know what their children are coming to. We need to ensure that that does not continue. We have an international responsibility, and I hope that the Minister will take a lead in co-ordinating our response.
Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): This is a grave subject and it is good that we should debate it in Westminster Hall. All who have listened are grateful that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) has managed to secure the debate, although horrified by what we have heard. The subject is clearly cross-departmental. As I was preparing for the debate, I was all too aware, as the Minister must be, that a range of departmental Ministers should be here because, if the problem is to be tackled effectively, they need to work together. There is no room for party politics in dealing with it. It is an appalling situation, and our country is on the butt of it. It is an iniquitous trade, unacceptable in this day and age, and we need to act effectively together to stop it.
It is important to place it in the context of social services because the authorities in certain counties, purely because of their location, are particularly affected. It is a problem for Kent, which bears a particular burden, and for West Sussex. Perhaps it is not such a problem for the Minister's constituency or for mine, but that could change. With an airport in one's constituency one might well find that one has the gateway to this kind of trade.
Mrs. Spelman : I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. She demonstrates the point of having the debate. Circumstances are placing a burden on certain local authorities and the Government should respond for the sake of everyone--for the unfortunate women and children who are being brought in illegally and for those suffering the knock-on effect, whose services may be adversely affected, particularly the elderly of whom there are so many in West Sussex and in Kent. The logic is irrefutable. We are not dealing with hearsay. There is a clear pattern of trade. I invite the Minister to consider why Britain has been chosen as the gateway for a clearly established route of illegal trade that leads to Italy.
Mrs. Spelman : I should like to proceed. We want to hear from the Minister, and the hon. Lady has had the opportunity to make her intervention. Our borders are not contiguous with Italy. If I were a criminal involved in this trade, why would I choose to come through Britain? It would make a great deal more sense, geographically, to go for a country whose border is contiguous with Italy.
Mrs. Spelman : No, I will not give way. Such a fact needs to be addressed urgently and internationally. The route for the girls is through the gateway at Gatwick, through Belgium--for some reason, which needs to be established--and on to Italy. There is a clear case to work together and to shut down that route. The problem starts through a gateway in this country and the Government cannot ignore that fact.
The television documentary, "Lost Girls", which I urge the Minister to watch if he has not already had the opportunity to do so, shows clearly the intense frustration of West Sussex social services. Its officers work in the rapid response team at Gatwick with immigration officials, but find repeatedly that no effective legal instrument exists to tackle the problem. An example is shown of the rapid response team being alerted to a woman entering Gatwick with an 11-year-old child, who she claims is her daughter. Social services knew that the woman had entered the country months earlier with other children of similar age. However, the law is so weak on that point that, unless the 11-year-old denied that the woman was her mother, there was nothing that the immigration official could do. It is obvious to all of us that there needs urgently to be a change in the law. I accept that such a change applies to the Home Office, but perhaps the Minister can bring his influence to bear on a Department that so far seems not to be listening clearly to the voice of real concern that has been raised by my colleagues in West Sussex.
The Minister should not underestimate the spiritual aspects of such cases. The girls really believe that they will die if they break their promises to the traffickers. As the documentary showed, it takes specialist counselling resources to help to tackle the beliefs of such young women, rather than the everyday resources of social services departments. I invite him to consider the cost of protecting the women in foster care and the patent failure to do that effectively. As far as we know, 40 young women have disappeared. The resources currently put into the protection process could be used more effectively if the Government were prepared to consider more secure accommodation for them.
Will the Minister think of the foster parents, for example? The documentary highlighted a case of a foster family who have twice had a young woman abducted from their home. It is clear that there is inadequate protection. If 40 young British women were abducted from foster homes in a local authority area, it would be a scandal and the problem would be tackled. Why are such vulnerable young African women offered such inadequate protection?
I know that the Minister has been to West Sussex. I commend him for that. He has heard evidence at first hand from those who are under pressure in social services. However, the assistance that has been offered to West Sussex social services is inadequate. That is why I support the request of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. Kent and West Sussex are in a special position that requires particular attention because of the extra burden that they have to bear. If he or I had Gatwick airport in our constituency, with such clear evidence of such an iniquitous trade in young woman and such patent evidence of failure to protect them adequately, we would be asking no less of the Government. I urge him to respond specifically to the problems that face West Sussex social services.
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton) : I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton), not only on securing this debate but on many of his points, with which all hon. Members would find it difficult to disagree. I especially agree with him that such exploitation of young people is a loathsome trade--it exploits the innocence and vulnerability of young people, which is deplorable, but it also strips them of their childhood, which is unforgivable. We need to tackle that evil trade, and I shall try to set out as clearly as possible the ways in which we are trying to do so.
I agree strongly with much of what the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) said about the need to address the problem not just as a social services responsibility--although, clearly, social services departments are in the front line--but as part of a co-ordinated programme of work across Governments and between Governments, which is an important element of tackling the problem. Unfortunately, it is not a new trade, and we are aware of certain patterns of development in the trade that we need to tackle. I hope to reassure her and other hon. Members about some of the measures that are being taken to tackle the problems that have been mentioned.
Hon. Members who contributed to the debate also commented on the financing of social services departments. I want to correct some inaccuracies, which were especially apparent in the contributions of the hon. Members for East Worthing and Shoreham and for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight), about the Government's record on social services funding. I am afraid that some of their statements in that regard were simply not true.
I was surprised by what the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) said about enhancing the security and well-being of children who come to this country as asylum seekers by detaining them in secure accommodation. I was taken aback that she was asking us to do that--but perhaps that was not what she was saying. I am aware that the Conservative party's policy is that asylum seekers should be detained in detention centres, but I did not realise that that applied to children, too. Will she clarify that position?
Mrs. Spelman : I should be happy to do so. It is clear that 40 young women have disappeared from foster homes. If they had been in secure reception centres, which might have the specialist skills to counsel them on spiritual aspects, they would have been safer.
Mr. Hutton : It seems that the hon. Lady is saying that young children who come as asylum seekers should all be detained in detention centres, which is not what I understood the Conservative position to be. That is an interesting issue, to which I am sure we shall return. If she is concerned about English children who might be vulnerable to such risks, presumably the same logic would apply to English children in care. Does she also want to clarify that position?
Mrs. Spelman : I think that the Minister would accept that, currently, there is a clear trade from Nigeria, through Britain, to Italy. Given the number of abductions, there is a special case for providing secure accommodation and appropriate counselling support to those young women, who are clearly not safe enough at present. There is a specific trade from west Africa to the continent of Europe.
Mr. Hutton : Yes, that is certainly the case. I want to say something about how West Sussex is dealing with those problems, which the hon. Lady and other hon. Members have identified. I take it that she is saying that young children who come here seeking asylum should be detained in detention centres--
Mr. Loughton : If there were secure reception centres, in which those children could be securely accommodated and helped with the various problems identified by my hon. Friend, does the Minister think that the trade would still be happening in this country, and if it were still happening, would those children be more at risk of being abducted? Surely he would agree that if such reception centres were introduced, the trade would disappear overnight.
We must always keep in mind the children's welfare and well-being. The solutions that the hon. Gentleman and others have proposed would require changes in primary legislation, and I do not think that that is the best way to proceed. However, I accept that he has raised genuine concerns and I will try to address some of them.
The hon. Gentleman correctly made the link between child trafficking and young people in the care of West Sussex county council. West Sussex social services became aware of the pattern of young people going missing in 1997, and it was the first local authority to draw attention to the issue. It has long been a receiving authority for a significant number of asylum seekers, because of Gatwick airport. However, his statement that West Sussex is second only to Kent in terms of the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children for whom it cares is incorrect: about 10 other local authorities in the country care for more such children.
At present, West Sussex social services department is caring for 141 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Since 1990, 479 such children have been referred to it. As the hon. Gentleman said, in recent years, some children have gone missing. The first such disappearance was in 1995, and the second in 1996. Seven young people went missing in 1997, and 11 in 1998. The figure peaked at 23 in 1999, and last year there were 21 disappearances. He correctly stated that no unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have gone missing from West Sussex social services department this year.
The majority of young people who go missing are aged 16 or 17, although the two youngest were aged 12 years and five months and 13 years and nine months. There is no discernable pattern with regard to the length of time that they are resident in the United Kingdom before they go missing: their lengths of stay vary from one day to 145 days, although 65 per cent. arrived less than a month before they disappeared. There has also been an increasing trend for such young people to arrive and disappear in pairs or groups.
There appears to be a discrepancy between the children's country of origin and their reported country of origin. Until July 1999, the great majority of them reported their nationality as Nigerian. Since then, a
All of the children have been girls, except for a group of four Ghanaian boys who arrived and left between March and July 2000, and three Chinese who arrived and left between September and December 2000. It is believed that those groups of young people are the victims of organised crime, but there is no connection with the west African criminal network that appears to control the movements of the Nigerian girls.
Since 1990, 64 young people have gone missing out of a total of 479 who were referred to West Sussex social services as unaccompanied young asylum seekers. These disappearances are a cause of great concern. However, in West Sussex, no such young people have disappeared since December last year, and no west African young person has gone missing since October 2000.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that social services can also face difficulties in determining the identity and age of such young people. It is probable that some of them had been given false identities to help them evade detection. It is also suspected that some of them had falsely claimed to be younger than 18 years of age so that they could receive care and assistance directly from local authorities. I also understand that there is hard and anecdotal evidence that some of the young people who go missing are being trafficked to mainland Europe to be sexually exploited. Some of them know that this is their intended destiny when they arrive in the UK, but tragically others believe that they are coming to the UK to work or receive training.
My concerns about the matter have led me to seek further information about the circumstances in which such young people go missing. I understand that they tend to be in their later teens, so it is inevitable that, once they are placed with foster carers, they have ample opportunity to disappear. Some of them might have been given contact numbers for people who will assist them in leaving. Others choose to go missing because they have made contact with members of their extended family who are already resident in the UK.
The suggestion that some of the young people go missing in suspicious circumstances is particularly worrying. West Sussex social services has, rightly, worked closely from the outset with Sussex police to try to prevent them from leaving care, and to ascertain their whereabouts when they have gone missing. It is because of the excellent work of West Sussex social services with the police and other agencies that the risks to the young people have become more apparent. The police have worked closely with Interpol, with other police forces in the United Kingdom and abroad and with the immigration services.
West Sussex social services, the police and the immigration services have built a profile of the characteristics of young people who are deemed to be at risk of going missing and who therefore require enhanced protection. In turn, the profile has helped the local authority to develop a safer system of care for asylum-seeking children--I think that was the point to which the hon. Member for Meriden referred.
Mr. Loughton : In the Minister's 11 minutes, he has quoted facts that have already been stated and that he could have gleaned from various briefs from the Home Office or West Sussex social services. Does he believe that the majority of the 40 girls from Nigeria who disappeared ended up in prostitution in north Italy? His comments make it sound like he does not believe that.
Mr. Hutton : I think that it is probable that a large number of the girls have ended up in the deplorable trade that the hon. Gentleman and others have described, although I would not like to say how many because I have no evidence--nor does he. He said that I was quoting facts that I could have gleaned from other sources, or that he has given. That is not so. I am trying to explain sensibly how West Sussex social services are trying to respond to the concerns. There is a way of targeting resources and protection measures towards the children who are most at risk. That is a sensible approach. Detaining all the young people in new, purpose-built secure detention centres, as the hon. Member for Meriden suggested, is not the correct way to deal with the matter.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that, although every effort is made to ensure the safety and security of the young people, none of the foster care placements is secure, in that the young people do not have their freedom of movement substantially impaired. They are not prisoners or young offenders, and it would not be possible to place the young people in secure accommodation without the approval of the courts. In practice, if a young person decides to abscond and has an outside contact who is prepared to help to remove that person from the area, or the control and care of the local authority, it is difficult for the social services to prevent that.
We must understand the reasons why young people go missing, and we should do all we can to ensure that sex traffickers do not coerce them. Social services therefore work closely with Sussex police, immigration, the Refugee Council and the national missing persons helpline to establish protocols, to investigate the wider picture and to try to track down missing young people. Efforts to identify and to find younger people are hampered by poor or missing paperwork and the restricted ability of the country of origin to assist with inquiries. The hon. Member for Romsey is correct to say that the matter must be addressed internationally in order to make substantial progress.
Although no west African young person has disappeared in recent months, West Sussex social services continue to provide additional care for children who fit the profile. The fact that there have been no further disappearances this year provides concrete evidence that the action taken by West Sussex social services and other agencies may have been effective in preventing young people from going missing. I am sure that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will welcome that.
The hon. Members for East Worthing and Shoreham and for Arundel and South Downs advanced a substantial argument about funding and how central Government fund local authorities that accommodate many unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham mentioned the costs faced by local authorities. I must point out to him and to other Conservative Members that the previous Administration provided no additional resources for West Sussex county council to meet the extra costs associated with looking after unaccompanied asylum-seeking children--no additional support whatsoever.
Mr. Hutton : No, I will not give way. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs had the good grace to recognise that the problem did not start on 1 April 1997. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham fell into the trap of assuming that all the funding problems started from that date--he was wrong.
The situation has now substantially improved, thanks to the changes that the Government have made to the local government special grant system. West Sussex's 1998-99 claim for £587,000 for associated costs was met in full. In 1999-2000, central Government provided more than £1.1 million funding to West Sussex to meet in full--I stress that point--the claim that the county council submitted to the Department of Health. Awards for the financial year 2000-01 are being assessed, and I understand that the council has submitted a claim for more than £2 million. As West Sussex social services is one of the authorities that supports on average more than 100 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children per week, it qualifies for the higher rate of central Government-funded financial support. This year, a total of £85 million has been made available to local authorities to help them meet the costs of looking after unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. So the hon. Gentleman's argument that the Government are
Mr. Loughton : Does not the Minister agree with the figure cited by West Sussex of at least £1 million for the additional cost of the problem? Will he therefore guarantee that that £1 million cost will be met in full, especially given his comments about the extra security features that are now, I am glad to hear, being added to social services department care homes for such children? There is an on-going and increasing cost. Will he guarantee that that amount will be met in full? If not, he is not even remotely funding the cost to social services of the problem, the existence of which he has admitted.
Mr. Hutton : Let us be clear. In the past two years, we have met West Sussex social services' claim for the cost of looking after unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in full. It claimed an amount; we paid it in full. I am not aware of the extra £1 million to which the hon. Gentleman refers, because West Sussex social services department has not sent me any request for £1 million in unspecified additional costs. There is a procedure for claiming under the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children's grant; the county council has gone through that process and submitted a claim for about £2 million. That grant is administered by the Home Office, so my colleagues in the Home Office will decide the appropriate level of payment. As I said, because of the large number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children that the county council looks after, it qualifies for the enhanced level of grant.
Painful though it is for the hon. Gentleman, who has been going on about funding, he must confront the fact that when his party was in government, no additional resources at all were made available to West Sussex county council for the additional costs that it was then incurring looking after unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. With the greatest respect, the hon. Gentleman's point--that the Government are not doing as much as we can to support local authorities such as West Sussex--is completely and utterly fatuous.
I must also deal with the point about funding raised by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs. West Sussex personal social services' standard spending assessment has increased by more than 25 per cent. since we took office. The hon. Gentleman made the fair point that that may not be enough. We are getting extra resources into social services as quickly as we possibly can. Of course, that must be dependent on the general state of public finances and the health and well-being of the economy. The hon. Gentleman must understand that--I understand that he speaks for his party on finance matters. He and the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham spoke for half an hour about the need to spend more on social services. That is good. In that case, he should have a conversation with the hon. Member for Meriden. As he will know, his party has
Mr. Hutton : No, I will not give way. It is time that the hon. Gentleman addressed the reality. I know that Conservative Members do not like it up them. [Interruption.] Everyone heard the hon. Gentleman's contribution. The hon. Member for Romsey, who did a very good job, would probably back me up if I asked her to. The hon. Gentleman said that the real problem was that we were not funding social services adequately. When Conservatives are confronted with their record on the issue, and their conspicuous failure even to match the present level of spending that this Government have committed to social services--
It is probably irrelevant to try to restore an element of consensus in this debate, because, having dispensed with the hon. Gentleman's false arguments about funding, we must now examine criminal law. He and the hon. Member for Romsey were right to say that trafficking is currently not a specific criminal offence under British law. Although he did not mention it, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that last year the Home Office issued a consultation paper examining ways in which to reform the range of offences that cover sex crimes--I am glad to see that he has it. One of the proposals was to establish a new criminal offence of trafficking. The consultation period on those proposals ended in March. The Home Office and my colleagues throughout Government are reviewing the responses, and we will introduce proposals in due course.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that it is an offence under section 2 of the Child Abduction Act 1984 to remove a child under 16 from someone who has lawful control of that child? That provision would clearly extend to West Sussex social services as the corporate parent of the children in their care. The offence carries a maximum penalty of seven years, so, with respect, it is not the case that there are currently no criminal offences that might be committed in the circumstances that we have discussed.
I accept the hon. Gentleman's point that in all the cases that have been mentioned, a successful criminal prosecution would depend on the availability of credible and reliable evidence to sustain that prosecution and make it worthwhile to proceed, which may be a problem. There is a loophole. I accept his argument about trafficking, and we are consulting on proposals to deal with that problem. However, it is wrong to suggest--as he may have done inadvertently--that criminal law as it is currently constituted is completely powerless to deal with any of the dimensions of the problem that he has identified.
Mr. Hutton : I acknowledge that point, and my colleagues in the Home Office have made it clear that we must revisit the area of law that covers sex offences. That is why there is a consultation proposal to establish the type of offence for which the hon. Gentleman and others are calling. We must weigh up the responses. Whether a particular prosecution is launched in any given set of circumstances is not a matter for Ministers to comment on, nor is it proper to speculate as to why prosecutions have not been brought. Those are matters for the prosecuting authorities. The hon. Gentleman is a mature individual--although he did not always show that today--and he knows that it is sometimes difficult for a prosecuting authority to pull together the substantial evidence necessary to support a prosecution. That is why we are consulting on how we can strengthen and improve criminal law in such cases.
We can have either a serious or a silly debate about this issue. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is repeating some rather silly points that have been acknowledged as being a problem and which we are trying to solve. He cannot have it both ways. I have acknowledged that there is a problem; we are trying to find ways to plug the loopholes that he and others have identified, and that is the sensible way to proceed. However, to suggest--as he did--that the Home Office is doing nothing to deal with the problems is wrong, and does not to advance our understanding of the arguments.
This is a serious issue. We are trying to deal with the problem. We are working closely with West Sussex social services to find a sensible way of enhancing the children's security. We are providing significant additional resources for social services, especially to deal with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. A new grant of £85 million is being disbursed across local authorities this year. We are also trying to strengthen criminal law and work across international boundaries to enhance the safety and well being of the young people. They are at risk, and it is our responsibility to provide better levels of security. We are determined to do that.