Transparency and accountability are central to building confidence in the rule of law. With crimes such as human trafficking, these principles serve several purposes: to emphasise the seriousness with which government takes this issue, to act as a deterrent and to facilitate engagement with citizens and civil society. Developing and sustaining transparency and accountability is good practice for a democratic society. In the UK, this has manifested in the televising of Parliamentary sessions; the powers of Parliamentary Committees to hold inquiries into legislation, policy development and other areas of national importance and hold Ministers (among others) to account; the development of public consultations on legislation and policy proposals and, in 2000, the Freedom of Information Act (FoI), which was supposed to open public authorities to scrutiny by ordinary citizens. While the implementation of the Act has not always been a smooth process, the ability to hold the government to account via FOI requests has been broadly positive. Indeed the Government claims it is:
committed to increasing transparency across Whitehall and local authorities in order to make data more readily available to the citizen and allow them to hold service providers to account. Not only will transparency allow people to see where their money goes and what it delivers … [it] will put the voluntary sector and small business in a much stronger position to pitch for contracts and bring new ideas and solutions to the table.
Our experience, however, shows that this commitment may not always extend to human trafficking. The Trafficking Research Project uses FoI requests to gather statistics on how the government, in this case the police, are addressing trafficking. Last month we requested several pieces of information from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), using FoI, including the numbers of arrests and prosecutions relating to trafficking, and the demographic characteristics of those arrested. We also asked if there had been any evaluations of the Blue Blindfold Campaign, such as an increase in intelligence gathering resulting in arrests, etc.
We should have known better regarding the last aspect of our request – it is a vague and difficult statistic for an institution to calculate. However, we were a little surprised by the response from the PSNI. Our request was turned down flat on the grounds that this last question exceeded the cost criteria (of £450) for FoI requests and thus all seven questions we submitted were to be dismissed. This seems counter-intuitive. The PSNI is not only bound by the Freedom of Information Act, but also, one would hope, engaged with the principles behind FoI. Unfortunately, the PSNI’s response was not the work of one ‘rogue’ police officer but rather, a strict interpretation of the FoI policy. As anyone who has attempted to use FoI on ‘sensitive matters’ this approach is not surprising. If the process was smooth, the Information Commissioner, a public body which deals with complaints about FoI requests, would be out of a job.
The information requested (excluding the last question) should be relatively easy to supply. In other words, the approach of the PSNI should have been to dismiss the last question on cost grounds but automatically supply the other information requested without the need to submit an entirely new FoI request. This would highlight not only the PSNI’s commitment to transparency but make life easier for those of us attempting to understand human trafficking and undertake responsible, factually-based awareness-raising.
Trawling the PSNI’s website, where all answered FoI requests are placed, reveals a further problem – that this kind of information may not even be collected, or at least centrally collated. This indicates a flawed data collection process. Northern Ireland is a relatively small place geographically and in terms of population size, not that big; while there may be regional variations in how trafficking is manifested, this is surely not insurmountable. How is the PSNI to understand if it is meeting its operational objectives if they don’t collect and retain the relevant information? The reasons for knowing the number of UK residents arrested for trafficking offences include crime prevention, as proof of effective public spending, as a method of engaging civil society, as a means of upholding the rule of law and encouraging public participation in policy development…the list is endless.
As for the Blue Blindfold Campaign – this was the first major campaign on the issue of human trafficking undertaken by the UK Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC); implemented both nationally and internationally. We requested the following details from UKHTC:
1. Any evaluation or monitoring undertaken which assisted in the development of the Blue BlindFold campaign. 2. Any evaluation or monitoring undertaken of the Blue BlindFold campaign after its launch. 3. Details and curriculum of any training given as part of this campaign. 4. Details of where the campaign was run (i.e. just the UK or also UK embassies, European ports etc) and if it was run in any other languages apart from English? 5. The cost of the campaign.
It was disappointing that our request, which should surely resonate with UKHTC’s strategic objectives and the effective spending of public money, should be turned down because the UKHTC was incorporated into the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) in 2010, which is not listed in Schedule 1 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and thus not obliged to respond to FoI requests. While the response comments, “you can currently find UKHTC statistical data on the [SOCA] site”, we are not interested, in this case, about statistics. The result is that the substantive work of the UK Human Trafficking Centre – the central point for tackling human trafficking in the UK – is beyond public view.
The difficulty in finding information on the Blue Blindfold campaign in England is particularly odd when compared with the response of the devolved government in Northern Ireland to the same query. The Department of Justice, which ran the campaign in Northern Ireland were happy, following an FoI request, to provide us with a number of documents relating to the implementation and assessment of the campaign. This highlights the need for flexibility and discretion by bodies such as the UKHTC, in responding to relevant FoI’s without impacting the sensitive nature of their work. Similarly, it raises questions on the ability for UKHTC to work with other agencies and government bodies if such a basic (and public) part of its work cannot be shared more broadly. The UKHTC cannot operate in isolation in tackling human trafficking; effective data collection and information sharing is surely fundamental to building collaborative relationships. Successful data collation and retention combined with a commitment and an ability to share the results of research is central to transparency and accountability in trafficking.
What about Singapore? In March 2012, the Singapore Government launched the National Plan of Action against Human Trafficking (NPA). We were impressed by the receptiveness of Government to consider input from civil society. However, six months on, we are only left with deafening silence as to the NPA’s implementation. Our letter to the Taskforce asked for more information about the action undertaken thus far. The response we received, while highlighting their on-going commitment to addressing trafficking, indicated that a discussion with NGOs would be forthcoming closer to the one year anniversary of the launch of the report.
What stands out about this response is, firstly, the total lack of engagement with the substantive comments in our letter and secondly, the irony of the first discussion with NGOs happening nearly a year after the launch of the NPA, despite the NPA only being 3 years long. This surely makes the ability of the Singapore Government to engage in productive partnership, one of the four ‘Ps’ deemed central to addressing trafficking, with NGOs nigh on impossible if discussions/meetings are only held annually!
We can find no public evidence that the Government is undertaking any of the activities outlined in the NPA, for example, the “Inaugural Self-Assessment report and funding needs assessment” or the “Definition of TIP offences, training program, public education and outreach” or even the “Stronger TIP investigation and prosecution processes”. While there have been recent high profile convictions of a number of men for online vice offences (sex with an underage Singaporean girl contacted online among others), none of these cases were considered trafficking and thus there have not been any equivalent convictions or arrests for trafficking. The lack of action may be due to problems with funding, though this raises issues about the appropriateness and effectiveness of developing high-profile strategies without ensuring that relevant funding is available. Equally, this is not to say that the Singapore government is not working its way towards developing the Action Plan. But without public engagement or effective communication with NGOs, in which engagement should be ongoing and incorporate the interests of all parties, not just the government, any such activities remain hidden.
There is no point in a state claiming that it is taking a robust approach to trafficking if no-one can see what is actually being done. This principle also applies to the concept of partnership – effective partnership is about being open, accountable, and utilising effective communication, for example. In this respect, though there have been two recent prosecutions for trafficking offences in Northern Ireland, the small number of cases brought forth raise questions about the PSNI ability to effectively tackling trafficking. Collecting and sharing information with civil society, the media and citizens, will enable a more robust picture of anti-trafficking activity to be developed and contribute to publicising the ways in which a state is addressing trafficking, sending a strong message to traffickers. Responsibility in achieving these goals lies wholeheartedly with the state, and is important in enabling civil society to hold the government to account, a concept that would benefit from more consistent engagement in both Singapore and Northern Ireland.