Yvette Cooper: Blinded by our hostility to Europe

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The Independent Online

The political consensus against modern slavery has been shattered. Despite pre-election promises, the Coalition is turning its back on efforts to crack down on criminal gangs across Europe, and increased help for victims of this heinous crime. By refusing to sign up to the EU directive combating human trafficking, the Government has let its hostility to all things European get in the way of sensible cross-border action. Vulnerable women and children are being betrayed.

Human trafficking is serious, current and growing. Victims are bought and sold, sometimes on a promise of a better life. Instead they are forced to work, to beg, are sexually exploited or worse. Children as young as three are sold like commodities. Victims are being physically abused and even imprisoned. It is estimated that more than one person is trafficked across borders every minute of every day. People selling other people is thought to be worth more than twice the global revenue of Coca-Cola.

Shockingly, Britain is the only EU country other than Denmark to have refused to sign up to the new directive. The Prime Minister claims it, "does not go any further than the law that we have already passed". But that is both wrong and missing the point.

For a start the directive increases our ability to take action where British nationals are involved in crimes committed abroad. Currently, if a British child is kidnapped and taken between European countries, we are limited in our ability to act. We are constrained too in our ability to prosecute British nationals who commit trafficking offences in other EU member states. The directive gives us stronger powers to intervene to help our own citizens.

It increases protection for victims too. Children will have a guardian appointed for them – someone legally responsible for them through the court process and beyond. Given that an estimated 64 per cent of identified child victims go missing from social services, this is not only a new but a necessary step to stop these children being trafficked again.

But even if the Prime Minister were correct and Britain were already leading the way, that would be even more reason to sign up now. British ministers and officials should be involved in drafting the EU law, getting the details right and providing leadership. This is clearly an issue where Europe-wide action can make a difference.

As a great believer in subsidiarity – decisions being made as locally as possible – I don't think the EU should take a view on every issue. But trafficking is transnational. If we fail to work across borders, we make it easier for the criminals and the pimps.

So why then are ministers so opposed? Sadly ministers don't seem capable of rational debate about measures with Europe in the title. Hostility to all things European from a very large part of the Coalition is blinding the whole Government to sensible measures that would help bring dangerous criminals to justice both here and abroad.

For the Conservatives, such knee- jerk scepticism is deep-rooted. But the presence of the Liberal Democrats has clearly done little to temper the government view. Instead, ministers seem to be simply sitting on their hands and hoping European legislation will go away. Euroscepticism seems to have given way to Euro-paralysis. Not pulling out but just pretending Europe isn't there.

Yet by doing so they are betraying our national interest, betraying the vulnerable people forced into slavery, and making it easier for criminal gangs. Over 200 years ago, Conservative William Wilberforce led the fight against trading human beings. Modern Conservatives are letting prejudice prevent them from standing firm against today's traders and traffickers. They need an urgent rethink. It's time to ditch the dogma, and stand up for the victims of modern slavery.

The writer is Shadow Foreign Secretary