Victims of human trafficking will be left at greater risk of exploitation in future, and their traffickers will be harder to prosecute, leading experts and politicians have warned. In many cases, the victims will be subjected to slavery, rape and violence while living in the UK.
They say policies aimed at targeting criminal gangs that smuggle people into the country – and protecting victims that escape from them – are to be scrapped by the Government.
Senior Liberal Democrats have broken ranks to demand ministers sign an EU directive on human trafficking which offers more protection to victims and comes into law later this month. An Independent on Sunday petition urging the Government to sign the directive has more than 20,000 signatures, but the Conservatives are resisting it.
Some 4,000 people, mostly women, are brought into the UK each year to work in the sex trade. Many more – including hundreds of children – are smuggled into the country to be exploited as domestic servants, farm hands or drug cultivators.
Now several specialist policing and investigative units aimed at tackling these crimes are threatened with closure or have already been shut.
The Gang Masters Licensing Authority, which investigates unlawful labour in agriculture and recently found Romanian children as young as nine working in fields, is facing closure. An attempt to save the authority was made last week when an amendment to the Public Bodies Bill was tabled in the Lords.
The Metropolitan Police's Human Trafficking Unit and Operation Golf, focusing on child trafficking, are closed. The government-funded Human Trafficking Centre has been absorbed into the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which is itself being wound up. The Poppy Project, which provides shelter for trafficked women, is also under threat. The Government has put its contract out for tender, asking for a less specialist service to be provided at 60 per cent of the cost.
The Border Agency's "reflection" time for deciding whether a person is trafficked or not is proposed to be reduced from 45 to 30 days, which experts say will put pressure on victims and make correct decisions less likely. In the EU, only Greece and Bulgaria have a time frame this short. In Italy, for example, it is six months.
Despite the new EU directive against trafficking being voted in by almost all UK MEPs – including Tories – it has not been adopted in Britain. Downing Street remains opposed to signing up to new measures on principle, with right-wing Conservative backbenchers keen to reassert their Eurosceptic credentials. A new formal process for the Government to assess EU directives has been established, with Tories seeking to persuade their coalition partners that the Home Office is already meeting – or exceeding – the demands from Brussels on human trafficking.
However, senior Lib Dems – including ministers who are privately pressing for it – believe signing it would be a major victory for their campaign to place civil liberties and human rights at the heart of the Government. Tom Brake, Lib Dem home affairs spokesman, said: "The European Union has bent over backwards to accommodate the British Government's concerns. I can see no reason why not to sign up to the directive. It would make a clear statement of the Government's support for trafficked women and its willingness to provide protection and secure convictions. I hope we will be signing on the dotted line as soon as possible."
Speaking at a national conference on human trafficking on Wednesday, shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper will condemn the coalition for letting Euroscepticism colour its decision not to sign the directive. She said: "The Olympic Games, dismantling of the UK Human Trafficking Centre and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and the deep cuts to voluntary groups will all make ending trafficking of vulnerable women and girls a greater challenge. That's why the Government should back tough new measures and Europe-wide action. David Cameron must stop pandering to anti-European prejudices in some parts of his party and sign the directive."
David Cameron partly justified the coalition's refusal to sign by saying the Government was already compliant with the directive. However, according to a report from Care to be published tomorrow, the UK does not comply with many of its requirements. The study found that Britain was inadequate in its support for child victims. (Three Vietnamese children who were suspected victims of trafficking went missing from care last week.) It says the country is also not compliant because it ignores forced begging as trafficking; cannot prosecute crimes outside Britain; fails to provide universal access to safe accommodation and medical treatment for victims; fails to investigate cases after a victim withdraws statement and does not offer proper protection of victims in criminal proceedings.
Former Conservative MP Anthony Steen, now chair of the Human Trafficking Foundation, said: "The Prime Minister made it plain last year that he wished Britain to lead the way in eradicating modern slavery. Britain is now no more going to lead the way than Bulgaria or Greece will."
This week, charities and support agencies will be consulted for the first time over the Government's trafficking policy, which is to be announced at the end of the month. They say this is tokenism as it is understood the decisions have all been taken. The Home Office has stopped a monthly forum that used to bring officials and NGOs together. A Home Office spokesperson said: "Combating human trafficking is a key government priority. We have already outlined our strategy to tackle trafficking, and with the new National Crime Agency will redouble our efforts to end this brutal form of organised crime."
Elena, 25, left Albania in 2007 to start what she thought was a new life in Britain with her boyfriend. When she got to London she realised she had been tricked
"I came over in the back of a lorry. It took seven days and I was tired and scared, but I thought it would be worth it. I left a good life in Albania: a family and a job I loved. But my boyfriend said he would marry me and I thought he would look after me.
"After a few days he said I would have to work for him. He said I'd be working in a restaurant. Then he took me to a flat where there were other girls in skimpy clothes, and left me there. I was given a drink that must have been drugged, because I woke up in bed a night and a day later and my body was blue and I knew something had happened.
"From then on I was his slave. He would hit me and threaten me and I was locked in the flat and forced to have sex with men. They were making money but I saw nothing. It took me more than a year to escape. A punter helped me get out when the bosses weren't home. He gave me a place to stay but he was putting his life in danger.
"Eventually I went to the police and they told me about the sheltered housing at the Poppy Project. Once I got there I was able to start a new life. They referred me to specialist police and I had 45 days to make my case. It felt hard enough having to get my case across within 45 days when I was only just breathing again and didn't yet trust the police. I can't imagine what it would be like if the Government changes it to 30 days now.
"I got refugee status because the gang was so powerful I could not return to Albania. The police are still investigating the gang and now I feel safe. The Poppy Project gave me back my life: with their help I felt able to help the police investigation and got refugee status in this country. Closing their doors will mean opening the doors to traffickers."
Join the IoS campaign
The Independent on Sunday is campaigning to persuade the Government to sign up to the EU directive on human trafficking. The directive will strengthen our laws to protect victims, and make it easier to prosecute those who enslave them. Readers can call on David Cameron and Nick Clegg to do the right thing by signing the petition on the campaigning website 38 Degrees.
To sign the petition, go to: www.38degrees.org.uk/stoptrafficking