Lord Avebury: My Lords, as always, it is a great privilege to follow in the footsteps of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on a human rights question, particularly one of such tremendous importance as she has raised this evening, on the eve of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. While Britain’s role in that horrific operation, as the Prime Minister said the other day, was profoundly shameful, we also had our heroes, who have been mentioned in this debate, such as the Clarksons, whose exploits were so well described in Simon Schama’s book, Rough Crossings.
For all their magnificent deeds, neither the abolitionists of two centuries ago nor their successors at the time of Abraham Lincoln were able to eradicate slavery itself, and it still exists, as the noble Baroness has said. The baton has been taken up by the noble Baroness and by Anti-Slavery International, which, by the way, has been going since 1839 in its present form, though its roots go right back to the 1780s and the days of the Clarksons and Wilberforce.
Today, and also in her book, This Immoral Trade, the noble Baroness concentrates on three areas of the world where slavery is alive and well: Sudan, Uganda and Burma, where children are forced to become soldiers or treated as the sex chattels of those who are doing the fighting. The situation the noble Baroness describes in Bahr al Ghazal, which she has visited several times, has something in common with the genocide in Darfur. In both provinces, which are neighbours, the attitude of the Arab masters towards the indigenous blacks is racist and colonialist, and the practice of slavery is part of a systematic attempt to extend the boundaries of Arab Islamic cultural domination. I was pleased to note that the African Union has demanded that the Sudanese Government immediately disarm the Janjaweed under threat of penalties by both the African Union and the UN. I hope this means that the Security Council will now use military force to prevent further acts of violence against civilians, whether Khartoum agrees or not. But we should also warn the Sudanese against continuing to commit crimes against humanity such as the noble Baroness describes in Bahr al Ghazal.
With regard to Myanmar, the ILO mission to Yangon in October to agree on a supplementary understanding on how its liaison officer should deal with complaints about forced labour, which in any case he was already receiving, was a dismal failure. The Minister of Labour raised legal objections to the draft text and referred the ILO special adviser to a working group with a view to ironing out the differences. In these discussions it appeared that agreement had been reached on the ILO’s right to examine complaints with a view to determining whether they concerned forced labour, and that during this process the working group would not seek to identify or approach the complainant. Unfortunately, the Myanmar side then went back on the agreed draft, saying that its own inquiry should take place in parallel with the ILO’s determination of admissibility.
From then on, matters went from bad to worse. The Myanmar side wanted to shorten the trial period for the new procedure, which had been set at 18 months in the draft, to six months, and it refused point blank to accept that the ILO liaison officer might be accompanied by another person, even if, unlike the present incumbent, he spoke no Burmese and therefore needed an interpreter. A new text reflecting the few points that had been agreed was transmitted to the Minister, but the mission had to leave without securing any agreement from him. It was due to report its failure to make progress to the ILO governing council at the end of November. I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us what the next moves are as a result of that meeting and how the United Kingdom can participate in them.
Coming nearer to home, there were several references in the debate to human trafficking into Britain. That has been the subject of a number of debates both in your Lordships’ House and in another place. Only last week reference was made in another place to Paladin Child. That study found that over a three-month period, 1,738 unaccompanied minors from non-EU countries sought to enter the UK through Heathrow alone. Thirty-nine of these children had to be referred to the local authority, compared with 25 the previous year—it is a growing problem—and three were found to be at risk of significant harm. But this may have been the tip of the iceberg; Operation Pentameter, which has also been referred to, identified 12 children who were trafficked over a four-month period this year, while ECPAT UK documented 35 children trafficked into London in 2004 alone. There is still a distinct lack of routine statistical information about trafficking in general, though Anti-Slavery International estimates that as many as 5,000 victims, adults and children, may be present in the UK. Other noble Lords have given different estimates that serve only to emphasise the lack of reliable figures.
The Minister, Vernon Coaker, said in the Westminster Hall debate last week that visa regulations in respect of children had been tightened up and that there had to be an identified adult travelling with them. He said that if the child was in distress, immigration officers would interview that child separately from an adult to try to determine whether there was a particular problem. Can the Minister say what criteria are now applied to visas for unaccompanied children, and how the credentials of accompanying adults are checked, bearing in mind that little Victoria Climbié was travelling with her aunt, who had not ill-treated her until after they arrived in the UK?
Paladin Child did not uncover, I understand, any direct evidence of children trafficking, so the extension of the process to all ports of entry, as recommended by the JCHR, may not be the most effective answer. Can the Minister say how many children are being admitted in the care of a person other than a parent and whether there has been any change in the numbers since the amendment of the visa regulations?
Finally on this subject, my noble friend referred to the opening of the UK Human Trafficking Centre in October, to move the UK, we are told, to a leading position in relation to the prevention and investigation of trafficking. That is good news and we are pleased to note that it will adopt a victim-centred approach, mentioned by a number of noble Lords, in accordance with the conclusions of the JCHR in its excellent report on trafficking. How will this be reflected in the Immigration Rules, which must allow both children and women the space to recover from the ordeal of being trafficked, particularly if they are to give evidence against the traffickers? How are the Government planning,
“to extend and develop the support that we give to victims of this vile trade”,
as the Minister said last week?
The noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, mentioned paragraph 198 of the JCHR report, which outlines in detail a victim-centred policy. What is the Government’s reaction, as I have not had the benefit of seeing their reply to the report? One would also like to know what they have said about the Council of Europe convention, mentioned by practically every noble Lord who has spoken. If they still hesitate to sign that convention, will they at least ensure that the national action plan to combat trafficking, of which we have also heard this evening, provides for specialist counselling and care of trafficked children, and automatic rights of residence, whether or not the is child prepared to give evidence in criminal proceedings?