Child victims of trafficking will be assigned ‘personal advocates’ in order to help keep them safe, the Government has announced, echoing ECPAT UK’s long-standing calls for a system of guardianship for trafficked children.

As we await details of the pilot, it is ECPAT UK’s concern that the advocates will be without legal authority to make decisions on behalf of the children and to hold public authorities to account. This will leave hundreds of children still at risk and could render the advocates effectively toothless to challenge failings by social services and others.

ECPAT UK has campaigned for a system of legal guardianship for more than six years having witnessed the devastating impact of abuse on trafficked children and the ongoing risks they face of going missing from care and being re-trafficked.

In 2007, ECPAT UK reported that two-thirds of trafficked children go missing from local authority care, which is supposed to keep them safe. Most of these children are never found.

We are pleased that the Home Office has responded to our most recent calls for guardianship by announcing two six-month trials in which advocates are assigned to trafficked children in care. It is thought the advocates will accompany children to meetings with immigration and welfare officials. It is not yet known how independent of the local authority these advocates will be, how they will be recruited and the exact remit of their role.

Yet it is clear that the advocates, announced by the Home Secretary Theresa May (pictured), will fall short of being legal guardians for the children, which ECPAT UK says is essential to ensuring public authorities, such as the police and social services, act in the best interests of the child and are held accountable for their actions.

Chloe Setter, Head of Advocacy, Policy & Campaigns at ECPAT UK, said: “This is a welcome move by the Home Office, which recognises the unacceptable risk currently posed to child victims of trafficking in care and we look forward to assisting in the trial and monitoring the results. However, ECPAT UK has always maintained that child victims of trafficking require legal guardians who would act, as a parent would, in a child’s best interests.

“Having an advocate is an improvement for victims in terms of support but it is our concern that an advocate can only go so far and has no actual authority in decisions taken about a child’s life. An independent advocate falls short of a legal guardian and may not be able to address these core problems. We hope that the trial period will show the Government how much needs to be done if it is serious about protecting trafficked children.”

The announcement of the trial has been made shortly after the publication of the draft Modern Slavery Bill, which it is hoped will improve protection for victims. The draft Bill is being discussed by a pre-legislative scrutiny committee, which is actively taking evidence on the best system to protect children. ECPAT UK gave evidence last week in the first session of the committee, stressing the need for and importance of an effective system of guardianship - independent and with legal authority to act in the best interest of child victims of trafficking.
Ms Setter added: “The timing of this announcement is somewhat confusing. The pre-legislative scrutiny for the draft Modern Slavery Bill is an opportunity for the Government to take evidence and really listen to what can best be done to help victims. By announcing this trial now, the Home Office appears to be making a deliberate attempt to avoid legislating for legal guardians in the Bill, which is what campaigners working with trafficked children have been demanding for years.

“We welcome an early move to improve conditions and care for trafficked children, however, a half-measure such as ‘personal advocates’ will not meet the requirements of a fully-fledged system of guardianship - formal, professional and legal - which evidence and research has shown is necessary to help keep trafficked children safe, help them recover from the traumatic experiences of abuse and exploitation and to rebuild their lives.”