Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Stamping out Human Trafficking in Reading

Back in October I attended a Conference organised by Lib Dem MEP for our area, Catherine Bearder, on the subject of human trafficking.

It included some truly shocking presentations about trafficking and the impact it is having on children and adults from countries around the world.

Before I attended the conference I'm happy to admit I did not have a good understanding of the issue of human trafficking nor the fact that it could be a serious issue in Reading.

For this reason I'm really grateful to Catherine for making me aware of the issue and for choosing to hold the conference in Reading.

If you are interested in finding out more I would suggest a good place to start would be the UK Human Trafficking Centre website.

The UHTC provides a useful working definition of human trafficking:
'In the simplest terms, human trafficking is the movement of a person from one place to another into conditions of exploitation, using deception, coercion, the abuse of power or the abuse of someone’s vulnerability. It is entirely possible to have been a victim of trafficking even if your consent has been given to being moved.

There are therefore three constituent elements:

The movement – recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons.

The control – threat, use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, or the giving of payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim.

The purpose – exploitation of a person, which includes prostitution and other sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery or similar practices, and the removal of organs.

Although human trafficking often involves an international cross-border element, it is also possible to be a victim of human trafficking within your own country.'
According to Stop Trafficking UK:
'Human Trafficking is the fastest growing criminal activity in the world, with a turnover exceeding US$10 billion. Estimates suggest that the number of people trafficked annually is between 600,000 (US Government figure) and 3 million (International Labour Organisation figure).'
And according to the Home Office:
  • An average figure of the numbers of trafficked children taken from the last two years of CEOP assessments (2009 & 2010) provides an estimate of approximately 300 trafficked children identified in the UK per annum.
  • Estimating the numbers of adults and victims trafficked into the UK is difficult due to the hidden nature of this criminal activity, but according to figures published by the Association of Chief Police Officers (August 2010) at least 2,600 victims had been trafficked for sexual exploitation in 2009.
  • The UK’s multi-agency victim identification and support National Referral Mechanism data from 1st April 2009 - 31 December 2010 identified 1,254 potential victims, including 322 potential child trafficking victims (this is a cumulative figure). The list below shows the top five highest represented countries:
The Coalition Government launched a new anti-trafficking strategy in July 2011 in attempt to strengthen support for victims of human trafficking. Measures included:-
  • a review of the current legislation to ensure that traffickers receive appropriate penalties for their crimes
  • a targeted focus on the countries that are a major source of trafficking and raising of awareness among potential victims
  • extending the use of current powers to seize the profits of traffickers and make it less attractive
  • establishing closer relationships with overseas law enforcement agencies to carry out joint operations across borders
Anti-Trafficking Conference - Reading - October 2011.

At the conference organised by Catherine Bearder we heard from a range of anti-trafficking campaigners including - former Police officrs, charity workers, Baroness Hamwee (Lib Dem) and the founder of a local anti-trafficking group in Oxford.

The conference was organised by Women Liberal Democrats although it was free and open to everyone.

People from across our area attended including a number of Liberal Democrat activists from Reading.

Sadly no other political parties attended.

It was not a party political meeting as it is very important we seek to find common cause and a consensus that action needs to be taken by everyone on this issue.

Although no Labour, Conservative or Green party activists came to the conference I was really pleased when a couple of weeks later current Mayor of Reading Cllr Deborah Edwards highlighted Anti-Slavery Day at the start of our full Council meeting.

Everyone who spoke at the Reading conference agreed that raising public awareness is key to stopping trafficking.

The thinking behind the conference was to draw peoples attention to the scale of human trafficking in the UK and the South East in particular and also to encourage people to campaign for action to reduce trafficking in their area.

I found the issues highlighted in the Conference around the trafficking of women and children in the UK and across the South East including down the road in Slough very disturbing and as a result I was prompted to find out more about what is being done in our area.

Part of the conference was about exploring setting up local groups.

I joined a table of Reading-based activists - including people from local churches and charities.

I took as an action the task of finding out what was being done in our area to tackle trafficking.

What's being done to tackle trafficking in Reading?
Based on the presentations I heard and information that was presented about the sheer scale of human trafficking in the UK at Catherine Bearder's Conference I find it hard to believe that this issue is not an issue in Reading.
Afterwards I did some Internet research about trafficking in our area:-
And this is just the people that the Police have managed to identify.

With this in mind and keen to arm myself with as many facts as possible I wrote to the Chief Executive of Reading Borough Council asking him what action local agencies were taking to stamp out human-trafficking.

I waited nearly two months for a response but finally received it today.

I've attached it below.

Thames Valley Police Response
'We review each and every reported crime, seven days per week during our daily management meeting. Included in this meeting are representatives of our Protecting Vulnerable Persons Unit including Domestic Abuse, Child abuse Investigation and Intelligence staff. Additionally, the neighbourhood inspectors attend.

Any intelligence or evidence of human trafficking coming to our notice would be a) be responded to at the time with an appropriate grading and b) be discussed and picked up by the appropriate team.

In terms of the wider issue i.e. trafficking within the gambit of 'organised crime', this would be picked up a higher level than local policing agencies such as the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) at a national level. The agency could work with local forces where appropriate.
As it stands, we have not been made aware of any human trafficking issues in Reading. This is not to say that it does not exist.'
What is the Council doing to tackle trafficking in Reading?
'The LCSB has already ensured there are procedures in place for vulnerable children. In particular Chapter 28: Trafficking & Exploitation (Revised June 2010).
These procedures include direct access to Home Office guidance and includes a link to the Tackling Trafficking Toolkit on the Criminal Justice System website. It was further revised in June 2010 to include a reference to the National Referral Mechanism.
We have no child to our recent knowledge referred directly in this circumstance, although have of course had a number of unaccompanied asylum seeking children/young people we are very minded about in relation to their vulnerability to trafficking.
We have also recently been informed to be extra vigilant in relation to the Olympics as the Met Police have told Windsor & Maidenhead they may be expecting an increase in activity - hence we have briefed team managers already.

In brief, we are aware and alert although the extent of known issues is tiny at the moment in Reading. We cannot of course report things that has as yet not come to the attention of ourselves or Police.'

Sex Workers Advisory Group:
'From a Sex Workers Advisory Group perspective, human trafficking and exploitation will be referred to in the emerging Sex Workers Strategy and we are looking at how we can identify the extend of the issue in Reading.
There will also be reference made to ensuring that staff beyond statutory agencies who may come into contact with individuals who are trafficked into the country, receive appropriate training.'
On the one hand I'm pleased to hear that as a local authority Reading Borough Council is reviewing its policies and procedures in relation to trafficked children.

Once it has been published I will be scrutinising the new Sex Workers Strategy to check it pledges action around reducing harm to trafficked women in Reading.

On the otherhand I was disappointed at the time it took the Council to respond to my request for basic information.

To my knowledge this information has not been widely shared amongst councillors before.

Maybe no-one else has asked for it?

Also, the response from the Police risks sounding complacent.

I would like to see Thames Valley Police raising public awareness in Reading about how they might be able to spot the telltale signs of trafficking in their area.

This is what is happening in Oxford where OXCAT - Oxford Community Against Trafficking is campaigning to raise awareness and encouraging reporting.

Their Open Your Eyes campaign suggests people should look out for the following:-
  • Foreign nationals who rarely come out of a house except with a guardian.
  • Frequent visitors to residential premises, often a stream of men arriving and leaving at unusual times.
  • Cars or minibuses picking up foreign nationals at unusual times.
  • Sex workers who offer ‘special services’ at a low price, who are advertised as having particular ethnicity, who appear underage or speak no or little English.
  • Teenage girls who seem unhappy, living with older, unrelated males, who drive them about.
  • Commercial premises (including restaurants) that survive despite an acute lack of regular business.
For much more detailed information, visit

If you see something suspicious the advice is to call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111

So what happens next?

Catherine Bearder MEP has raised concerns about the impact the forthcoming Olympics could have on the problem of human trafficking - suggesting that it could lead to an increase in women being trafficked for sex in the South East. Catherine will contiue to challenge agencies at local and European level to act.

I will continue to ask questions of local agencies and to challenge them around their responsibilities to vulnerable children and adults.

You can add your name to the Human Trafficking Foundations' database of supporters.

I've written this blog post in part to raise awareness locally. Please do the same in your community.

We should not tolerate modern form of slavery in any of its forms.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Empty Homes Week 2011 - Reading Lib Dems' Campaign Continues

Apologies for the lack of updates, the previous few weeks have been incredibly busy, but productive.

I haven't had time to write many blog posts so if you want to keep up with my activities you might want to follow me on Twitter.

But I wanted to write a quick note about an important current issue and one that is close to my heart .

This week is National Empty Homes Week - the brainchild of my friend David Ireland, Chief Executive of the excellent campaigining charity Empty Homes.

David switched me on to the problem  in Reading when he phoned me out of the blue five years ago when I was first elected on to Reading Borough Council to tell me about the problem of empty homes and to draw my attention to the Council's shocking record on the issue.

The Council which was at that time controlled by Labour had no strategy, resources of focus ont the issue.

This was not as a result of lack powers available to tackle the problem but lack of will by councillors in control of the Council to do something about it.

I began campaigning on the issue locally and this led me at one point to have a meeting with a Labour housing minister who despite listening to what I had to say failed to take any action whatsoever to improve the situation.

Fast forward to today and we have a Council controlled once again by Labour councillors who are once again close to silent on the issue.

To to coincide with Empty Homes Week this morning I took part in a live discussion with BBC Radio Berkshire's Andrew Peach, David Ireland, and Hayley, a resident living in Buckinghamshire struggling to get access to housing she can afford.

According to statistics gathered by Radio Berkshire there are about 25,000 people on housing waiting lists across Berkshire and at about 8,000 in Reading alone.

By their reckoning the number of people stuck on waiting lists has risen by 60% since 2004.

In Reading, lack of access to affordable housing is a major problem for many families and all political parties should be focussed on finding solutions.

There is a particular shortage of family-sized housing to rent.

At the same as people are struggling to find housing in our area there are over 400 properties currently registered as empty in Reading alone (down on 500 last year).

Clearly, bringing empty homes back into use will not solve the housing shortage we are facing but it will go part way to addressing it whereas doing nothing about them will just make matters worse.

According to official figures from Reading Borough Council the total number of properties in Reading classed as 'long term empty' i.e. empty for 6 months or more breaks down as follows:
  • 281 owned by individuals
  • 67 owned by companies
  • 86 by housing associations
  • 3 by public bodies
Locally I've led the campaign to raise the profile of empty homes since 2006 and I'm glad that after years of campaigning to get action taken at both local and national government we have a government that actually believes in tackling the problem.

Action on empty homes in the Coalition Agreement and is being delivered now.

Last week in a debate on the issue, Lib Dem Minister Andrew Stunell said:
'I am appalled at the scandal that 250,000 properties are empty when millions of people are on waiting lists, anxiously looking for homes and unable to find them. As well as being eyesores and as well as easily falling into disrepair, empty homes are often an expensive menace to communities and public services, attracting antisocial behaviour, squatting and vandalism.'
So where are empty properties currently located in Reading? According to the latest RBC figures (September 2011) they are:-
Battle 78

Tilehurst 69

Abbey 43

Redlands 30

Minster 27

Katesgrove 27

Park 24

Caversham 24

Norcot 22

THames 18

Kentwood 14

Southcote 13

Church 9

Peppard 8

Mapledurham 2
Real Action on Empty Homes in Reading

Locally Lib Dems have been leading on the issue with other Parties virtually silent.
  • Since 2008, (after a campaign I led which shamed Labour councillors into action) Reading Borough Council has had an Empty Homes Strategy which sets out how the Council will address the problem of empty homes including ranking them by priority order.
  • When I was chair of the housing scrutiny committee I asked for updates on empty homes to be published every 6 months. That stopped after a Labour councillor took over the chair last year.
  • I have gone on regular 'empty homes' walkabouts with RBC officers to understand the problem and campaign for action
  • We have reported countless empty properties to the Council for action across Reading (including 1 Alexandra Road, pictured)
  • We have asked questions in Council meetings of councillors and officers
  • The Lib Dem - Conservative Coalition Administration that ran the Council between May 2010 and May 2011 protected the role of empty homes officer to ensure that despite budget pressures this important work could continue.
Lib Dems protected action on empty homes in this year's budget. The question is will Labour and the Greens?

Research has  shown there tend to be more empty properties in places with large private rented sector - which is what we have in Reading - our private rented sector is the same size as Manchester!

One of the reasons we have so many empty homes in Reading is that until now there have been little or no incentives for landowners or councils to bring empty homes back into use.

Lib Dems in Government are helping to change this.

The Government has taken a number of important steps, including introducing the New Homes Bonus, in response to the empty homes problem.

  • The New Homes Bonus means that for the first time councils are receiving cash not only for every new home they build but also every empty property they bring back into use
  • In Reading the Council has been awarded over £1.2 million pounds for building new homes and bringing empty properties back into use.
  • Government has allocated a £100 million budget so that housing associations, councils and community and voluntary groups could apply to bring empty homes back into use as affordable housing.
  • An additional £50 million of funding has been allocated to tackle some of the worst concentrations of empty homes.
  • Councils will have local discretion to introduce a council tax premium on homes in their areas that have been empty for more than two years, to provide a stronger incentive for empty-home owners to bring them back into use.
David Ireland, Chief Executive of the Empty Homes Agency said:
"The government has introduced some excellent measures to bring empty homes back into use set out in it's housing strategy. It is the first time that there has ever been a government empty homes strategy and we welcome it,
"I do think however, that there are a couple of areas where the government could do more. The first is in encouraging councils to dispose of their own abandoned property, and the second is in helping ordinary people create homes for themselves by bring property back into use."
What can you do to help reduce the number of empty homes?
  • Visit the Empty Homes website for more information on the issue and how you can take action.
  • Watch Channel Four's new series 'The Great Property Scandal' starting tonight at 8.30pm on 4.
  • People in Reading can help us tackle the problem of empty homes. Email me if you notice an empty property on your street and I will raise it with the Council for action.
We will continue to campaign on this important issue but we need your help to bring more empty homes back into use so get involved.

We owe it to the people stuck waiting for affordable housing to do everything we can to make the best use of existing housing as well as building new homes.