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20 Mar 2007 : Column 710

Dr. Cable: Yes, indeed. I am less familiar with that work than with Eric Williams’s book, but the hon. Gentleman is right, and there were many others.

There is one aspect of the history that has not yet been touched on, but with which I have been confronted several times in discussions on the subject: whether, as a society, we should in some sense apologise—that is the word that is usually used—for what happened 200 or 300 years ago. The obvious response, which is the one that I tend to give, is that, put in a very crude way, that is not a helpful suggestion because clearly, in any sensible ethical system, one cannot apologise for things that happened 10 generations ago. Equally, the case is often put by groups of Nigerians who have a much wider agenda and who are demanding money.

None the less, there is a deeper point here. We must acknowledge in some form that modern British society owes much of its prosperity and many of its institutions to what happened all those years ago. The way the Prime Minister captured it in his statement earlier this year was about right. A formal apology of the type that is often sought is not quite right, but we have to go a long way to acknowledge that the slave trade was not some distant event from which we are entirely disconnected.

The best way that we can honour the past and pay reparations to it, if that is what is sought, is by ensuring that contemporary slavery is properly and decisively dealt with. Some facts and figures have been cited, but I am concerned that we may be understating the magnitude of it. The United Nations agencies that are responsible have identified modern slavery as being worth roughly $30 to 40 billion. It is the third largest source of illegal income, after drugs and illegal armaments transactions. There are probably about 27 million people who are directly involved in slavery in quite a narrowly defined sense. I exclude child labourers and others, but there are probably 27 to 30 million people who are employed in slave conditions, many, but not all, of them in the Indian subcontinent in bonded labour-type arrangements.

The most shocking fact that I uncovered when I was preparing for the debate is what is happening in the economics of the slave trade, which the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks touched on with reference to the forces of supply and demand. The key point that emerged was that the price of slaves has collapsed, in the same way as the price of drugs has collapsed. Some economic historians have established that throughout history, going back centuries, if not thousands of years, it is possible to put a price on slaves. It sounds an appallingly impersonal thing to do, but in the interests of objectivity one has to try to do it.

Economic historians have estimated that typically, at current prices, slaves were worth the equivalent of £10,000. Of course, that varied a great deal, but it explains why slaves were valuable and why people traded in them. What has happened is that the price has collapsed to about £100 today. The reason is that millions of people who were engaged in subsistence living, particularly in the Indian subcontinent, have suddenly entered the modern economy and are freely available in vast supply. The result is the phenomenon to which the Deputy Prime Minister alluded when he cited the case of the British traffickers who have been
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dealing in people. The figures that he gave were between £2,000 and £10,000, I think. Traffickers can acquire people who are equivalent to slaves for £100 in the countries of origin. There is enormous scope for mark-ups; that is what is driving the trade and why it is expanding so virulently.

The next question is what we do about it. Many of the arguments have already been touched on. As the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks suggested, it is partly about border protection and controls. That is one dimension, but the other is that of ensuring that trafficked people who are intercepted are properly protected. For the past few years, Liberal Democrats have been pursuing the issue of the signing and ratification of the European Council resolution on this matter, which provides an extra degree of protection for trafficked people. We know that the Government have reservations about that, notably on the 90-day reflection period, but I wonder whether Ministers could summarise in the wind-ups where we currently stand with this argument. Our belief, looking at the experiences of countries such as Italy which provide that degree of protection, is that it has not acted as a pull factor in the way that the Government feared. In fact, the Italians have been able to make 100 times as many prosecutions of traffickers on the basis of the laws that they employ.

I turn finally to a point that has not yet been made, although the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington hinted at it in her peroration—that is, whether we sufficiently acknowledge the role of the black community in Britain and the extent to which, in a country that once had slavery, we now fully accept our own black citizens as complete equals and accept them with dignity. It is a very mixed story. Over my lifetime, we have moved away from open and explicit racial discrimination, which was common and openly advertised. We do not have ghetto-style segregation, as in the United States. We have social trends such as very high levels of intermarriage between white and black people, which indicates at least a degree of optimism about the future.

There is, however, a negative side that we must be open and honest about. Despite successes in many activities, there are still serious problems with discrimination. For example, the Metropolitan police have tried harder than most institutions to get rid of racism, but over the past few days Ali Dizaei’s book has pointed out that many of the practices of the past still persist. In the past few weeks, we have seen a report showing how entrenched the differences are in educational performance. Ever since I came into the House, I have taken a personal interest in young offenders, and I go regularly to Feltham to pursue the issues there. The minute one goes into the place, it is very striking that 65 per cent. of all the prisoners are from ethnic minorities, and the vast majority are black. Clearly, something has gone fundamentally wrong with the way in which black youth is being dealt with in British society that perpetuates this disadvantage.

Although I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington that it is a source of pride that we are dealing with this issue and doing so in such an adult way, we still have to address long-term legacies that are embedded in the form of discriminatory treatment; that is why there is absolutely
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no room for complacency.

5.13 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to be able to take part in this debate, which I congratulate the Government on holding. I particularly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on an absolutely brilliant speech that brought home to everyone in the House—and, I hope, in wider British society—not only the whole significance of the defeat of the slave trade 200 years ago but the existence of the prejudices that allowed it to develop and to continue. She put the case incredibly well, and I congratulate her on that.

On 23 May, an exhibition will open in Westminster Hall called “The British Slave Trade: Abolition, Parliament and People”; it has been my pleasure to sit on the committee that has been organising it. It tries to emphasise not only the importance of what happened in Parliament but the influences that came from outside Parliament to make it happen in the way that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) very adequately pointed out in his speech.

Mr. Khan: My hon. Friend will be aware that, for the first time in our history, the exhibition will have a writer in residence working with the schools on the displays. One of the schools chosen is Burntwood girls school in Tooting. I am sure that he will be appealing to Members to go along to the exhibition and watch these wonderful children, all of whom are Tooting girls, demonstrating our pride in the abolition of this trade 200 years ago.

Jeremy Corbyn: I absolutely agree, and as I was on the committee that asked the school to take part, I duly congratulate myself on that. It was indeed a splendid choice, and I hope that every Member will come along to the exhibition.

Many congratulations are due to Baroness Lola Young of Hornsey, who has chaired the committee and put a huge amount of effort into ensuring that the exhibition is a success. One of the exhibits, loaned from the museum in Wisbech, is Thomas Clarkson’s box. This was the famous box that he used to take around the country, in which he carried the instruments of torture—the manacles and all the other horrible things—that were used in slavery, and the descriptions of the slave ships and the ways in which people died as a result of the trade. We owe a debt of gratitude to the Wisbech museum for loaning us that equipment and for its help and support.

Baroness Howells brought along to the committee meeting earlier today one of the neck irons that had been put around the necks of African slaves when they were captured and taken to the ports. They were tight pieces of iron that were effectively welded around the necks of human beings in order to chain them together to take them off to a destination unknown to them. That is what slavery was about; it illustrates the brutality involved in the slave trade.

We would do well to ensure that, this year of all years, all the children in schools in this country and around the world begin to understand what the slave
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trade meant—the brutality and the horror of it, as well as the bravery of those who campaigned against it, and the even greater bravery of those who took part in the slave rebellions in Africa, the Americas and the Caribbean. As the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks pointed out, their names were not recorded in most cases. They led apparently useless rebellions, but word got through and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington said, evil was eventually outed and defeated. However, it took a very long time to do so.

Slavery was not a neutral occupation. As my hon. Friend pointed out, Members of Parliament were deeply involved in the slave trade. It was a central core of British life. We have only to look at the names of the buildings and roads in Bristol, Liverpool and London. In Bristol, we find Colston hall, named after a great slave owner, and Whiteladies road, where white ladies went to buy black boys as their slaves. That was all part of British life, and defeating it was a great achievement. The profits from the slave trade were astronomical. One of the most formative books that I have ever read is the wonderful work by the late Dr. Eric Williams, “Capitalism and Slavery”, which I think was his PhD thesis when he was at the London School of Economics. In it, he describes the riches that the City of London and other places made from the slave trade.

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is quite right about Edward Colston, who was notorious in Bristol as someone who earned a great deal of his wealth from the slave trade. A number of places in the city are indeed named after him. There is, however, a lot of mythology surrounding Whiteladies road and Blackboy hill. There is no evidence whatever that they were in any way linked to the slave trade.

Jeremy Corbyn: There is no evidence to the contrary, either. A couple of weeks ago, I was at an interesting meeting to commemorate the abolition of the slave trade, and I had a long discussion about this with some extremely learned people. Gus John and Alex Pascall both assured me that Whiteladies road had that connotation. We should think about these things quite carefully, and about the history of the slave trade and what it meant to so many people.

I was talking about the amounts of money made from the slave trade by some of the richest people in Britain. For example, Sir Francis Baring was a Member of Parliament for 18 years and died leaving a legacy of £1 million, which was one heck of a lot of money in the 18th century. William Beckford became the first English millionaire MP. I think that there might be quite a few millionaires in the Chamber, or at least in this building, at the moment, but I am not one of them—[Hon. Members: “That is a shame.”] No, it is not a shame. I am very happy not to be rich. If we look at the planters who made money from the West Indian plantations, particularly in Jamaica, we see that the Beckford family included several Members of Parliament.

Those were the forces that Wilberforce, Clarkson and others were up against in their campaign for the
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abolition of the slave trade. Interestingly, however, their involvement in that campaign did not have much direct connection with the slave uprisings going on at the same time. They saw their campaign as a campaign in Britain. At the same time as a high moral stance was being taken by Britain against the slave trade, the slave uprisings taking place all over the Caribbean and the Americas—partly in response to the French revolution but also in response to other factors—were being brutally put down by the British Army, while the British Navy was stopping the slave trade taking place on the high seas. One might say that a few double standards were in operation.

I want to quote from “The Abolition of Slavery” by Richard Hart, an old friend of mine who has spent his life campaigning against racism and the slave trade. He describes the emancipation rebellion in western Jamaica, and the way in which it was put down. He writes, of the first week in 1832, that

On being sentenced to death, Sharpe, one of the leaders of the rebellion, said,

The Maroons who escaped into the Maroon country in Jamaica managed to hold out for a long time. Kofi, their leader, is still venerated in Jamaica, and rightly so. We must remember those aspects of the history of abolition. In passing, let me say that I hope that the Jamaican Government will do their best to protect the wonderful Maroon country of Jamaica from the mining exploitation being visited on it at present, so that succeeding generations can see the place where those who managed to escape slavery lived.

We must also consider what happened once slavery had been abolished. The British commercial interests—largely, they were British commercial interests—were not done. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) pointed out, they transported large numbers of indentured workers from India to Mauritius, South Africa, the Caribbean and many other places. In reality, those indentured workers, though they might have had a supposedly limited time on their indentures, were slaves, just like the slaves who had supposedly been completely freed at that time.

Once we understand the history, we must go forward. Slavery is an inhuman and vile state. Two things are necessary for slavery: one is the ability of people to turn a blind eye to the utmost brutality; the other is the making of huge profits from slavery and the control of other human beings. As many Members have pointed out, the profits made by the sugar industry and many others led to the British banking system, and to Barclays¸ the Midland and many other banks in this country. Such interests are still around, however, and making a great deal of money in different ways from the inhuman treatment of people. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks pointed to the sex slaves of the present, and to the appalling trafficking of human beings. We are also aware of very poor people, mainly from south Asia, being transported, virtually,
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into economic zones in the Gulf states and other places and forced to work for low wages, with no trade union or other rights. Is such gross exploitation of very poor people so different from slavery in a modern sense?

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): I was interested in the hon. Gentleman’s point about people turning a blind eye and to financial gain through slavery. Does he feel as uncomfortable as I do when I flick through the back pages of many local and national newspapers and see adverts selling sex? Does he wonder how many of the women involved have been trafficked into this country?

Jeremy Corbyn: I, too, often wonder that when I see those obscene advertisements around the place. Often, society is keen to condemn with ritualistic moral fervour those who get involved in that trade while ignoring those who make a great deal of money out of it.

In this year of commemorating the abolition of the slave trade, I hope that the Government will welcome and support Amnesty International’s recommendations on the European convention to end trafficking. One is to train officials to identify those who perpetuate human trafficking. Another is to support victims, through accommodation and whatever else is necessary, including allowing them to remain in a country of safety. All hon. Members who represent inner-city areas are familiar with the process whereby people have been trafficked into the country and are living here illegally in a technical sense. They are victims of every kind of exploitation. Is it right that our response is to deport them to places that are probably dangerous for them and likely to expose them to the same treatment in future?

In concluding her speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington spoke about the way in which people are condemned as sub-human. Is the way in which the poorest people in the poorest parts of the world are forced into awful employment practices and those seeking to escape from the dreadful poverty—the origins of which partly lie in the slave trade—in some parts of Africa die on the high seas when trying to seek a place of safety or end up in detention centres all over Europe and the Americas so very different?

We must recognise the wonderful work that was done to end the slave trade 200 years ago and the brave people who stood against it, but acknowledge that we have not yet fully achieved the sort of justice for which they fought. We have a great deal more to do to ensure that our economic relationships with the poorest people in the poorest countries are fair, not exploitative, and that victims of poverty and exploitation are properly treated when they arrive in our country.

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend rightly identified the exploitation of labour in developing countries. Does he also agree that one of the main problems and causes of trafficking is massive unemployment in the developing world and that we have failed to tackle that?

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Jeremy Corbyn: Absolutely. For many of the poorest people in the shanty towns of Africa and on the periphery of the cities of Asia—and, indeed, in central and eastern Europe—such exploitation is the only way out. If we want to live in a peaceful world in which the dream of treating human beings as human beings is a reality, we have a great deal to do. Today’s debate has shown what has been achieved but is also a salutary lesson in how much more remains for us all to do.

5.28 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I do not always agree with much of what the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) says, but I am broadly in sympathy with the points that he made this afternoon.

I should begin, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) did, by declaring an interest. In 1983, when we commemorated the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, as distinct from the slave trade, I published a short life of William Wilberforce, which is now sadly out of print. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks has the field to himself. When I was writing the book, I became increasingly aware of what a great man William Wilberforce was. I do not detract from what people have said about others, including Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp and John Venn. The list is long and many anonymous people made a genuine contribution, especially the slaves themselves. However, William Wilberforce was the parliamentary spearhead and an extraordinary man—unprepossessing in appearance, short of stature, physically frail, yet with an indomitable spirit. He fought tenaciously, suffered many setbacks and, for 20 long years, embodied the abolitionist cause in this place. It is good for us as Members of Parliament to reflect on what a man who never held high office, nor ever aspired to it, could achieve by his persistence and—as Sir Samuel Romilly said at the time when slavery itself was finally abolished—by his sheer goodness.

Wilberforce was not a party man. Some of my colleagues like to claim that he was a Tory, but he was not; he was an independent Member of Parliament. He was a very close friend of William Pitt, but, as I have said, he never aspired to high office. He was the absolute embodiment of what an independent-minded Member of Parliament can be, and his work is an example to us all of what such a man can achieve. I believe that he was the greatest Back Bencher of all time; I do not know whether my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks has come to the same conclusion—we shall have to wait for his book to be published to find that out. Wilberforce is certainly one of the pre-eminent figures in the parliamentary roll of honour, which includes Shaftesbury, Joseph Arch and many others. On almost exactly the same date as the Bill to abolish the slave trade received Royal Assent—25 March—it is good that we are reflecting on what one of our past parliamentary colleagues achieved by his campaign.

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