Human Trafficking (Further Provisions and Support for Victims) Bill [HL]

By natwei_lngozg on 25 November 2011
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                Source: Hansard My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord McColl, on his Bill, which raises some very important issues. I am delighted to speak in support of it today and declare an interest as an adviser to the Community Foundation Network, whose members do a huge amount all over the UK to both fund and mobilise community-led solutions to local social problems. One such problem is fuel poverty, which it is tackling through its current Surviving Winter appeal where members of the public are invited to donate their winter fuel allowance to others in greater need of it in their community. In the time available to me, I would like to home in on one specific challenge, protecting the victims of child trafficking, and one specific part of the Bill, Clause 9. The ECPAT UK child trafficking data and statistics briefing for May 2011 does not make for pleasant reading. As my noble friend Lord McColl and others have mentioned, it reveals that between 2007 and February 2010, 301 of the 942 children identified as victims of trafficking went missing from local authority care, mainly under the watch of stretched social workers, and with many children passed from one agency to another, sometimes with limited or no dedicated representation to help support them. Clause 9 of the Bill addresses these challenges by providing a much more robust system of protection in the form of a legal advocate, who would have dedicated responsibility for supporting a child victim of trafficking in all their interactions with the state-the police, the courts, social services and so on. Such provision is based on international best practice in child guardianship, and we must afford child victims of trafficking in the UK nothing less if we are to demonstrate genuine compassion for these incredibly vulnerable and needy children. There is a problem, however. Guardianship is generally costly and, as everyone knows, at present the Government do not have much in the way of spare cash. Some might respond to the financial constraints of the moment by resigning themselves to the sorry conclusion, “It will never happen”. While this may be logical if you subscribe to a narrowly statist approach to service delivery, it is not if you take a broader view. The truth is that there is an important alternative approach to service provision that trades on a commitment to localism and the principles of citizen-led social action which I and others have advocated and sought to help foster over the past decade. If 946 victims of child trafficking are identified over three years, that works out at just over 300 children a year. That is a significant number but rising to the challenge would not be beyond the capacity of the voluntary sector working in partnership with government. In the run-up to this debate, I was approached by a number of different charities that said that they would be very interested in working with the Government to develop a guardian programme staffed by volunteers. Of course, there would be some cost implications. They made it very plain to me that it would be absolutely imperative that volunteer guardians were properly trained to deal with what can be very challenging situations. They would also need to have ongoing supervision. This would all cost money which would need to be raised somehow. Crucially, however, these costs would be very small when compared with a classical, salaried statist approach to guardianship. The analogy with such a solution would be that of local magistrates, who give huge amounts of time to serve their communities. Similarly I do not think it beyond the wit of man, even in these strained times, to find 300 people nationwide willing to give a few hours a week to help a trafficked child access justice and fair treatment after the trauma of having been kidnapped and enslaved, and of having been abandoned or of having escaped. This is where the drafting of the noble Lord’s Bill is so very helpful. It makes provision for a legal advocate but does not define the arrangements in great detail. Instead, it gives the Secretary of State an order-making power in Clause 9(1). This order-making power could be used to define a very expensive statist approach to guardianship or it could make provision for the Government to work with the voluntary sector to develop a very much more cost-effective guardian, prepared and provided by civil society. In making this suggestion today, I anticipate two objections to which I would like to respond. First, some will argue that, if charities are expressing an interest but have not yet set anything up, things cannot progress through this Bill. The absence of an up-and-running voluntary sector proposal, however, does not prevent the Government from future-proofing legislation through the provision of regulations that provide for the possibility of working with the voluntary sector on child guardians as and when voluntary initiatives get off the ground. The second objection I anticipate to my proposal for an alternative approach to guardianship pioneered through a government/voluntary sector partnership is that it would be quite a challenge to create a nationwide network and organisation to rise to the guardianship challenge overnight. I agree, and in the spirit of the Localism Bill would like to suggest that either the regulations make provision for-or, if this is not possible, the Bill is amended to make provision for-charities and community groups to bid to take on the development of a system of voluntary local guardians for trafficked children within a local authority area. As with the community right to challenge in the Localism Bill, if the local authority does not deem the proposal to be sufficiently robust it should have the right to reject it, after which the charity should, in turn, have the right to appeal to the Secretary of State or seek a judicial review. Such a legal framework would facilitate a grass-roots approach to guardianship that, in time, would come to cover the UK, I hope. It would not be dependent on government moneys but I am confident that, if it worked, local authorities would recognise that it was in their interests to support the initiative. In closing, this Bill’s time has come and I hope that the Government are able to support it. Do we want to continue as we are, losing children at a completely unacceptable rate and have no system of guardianship, or would we rather have some form of guardianship? We must not let the best become the enemy of the good. We cannot allow the current situation to continue. In particular, I ask the Minister whether he has recognised the scope for an alternative approach to guardianship, via the “legal advocate” order-making power, and specifically what his view is of the proposal that community groups be given the opportunity to bid to provide that function at no, or low, cost to the state to help these 300 or so children in need every year. Would he be prepared to meet with concerned Peers to discuss this possibility?