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The country that I have had most involvement with is Sierra Leone, which I have visited on five occasions. Slaves freed by Britain initially returned to Africa through that country—many chose to settle there. From the appropriately named port of Freetown, the Royal Navy conducted its anti-slavery patrols; indeed, it continues to patrol the seas off Sierra Leone today. Unfortunately, life for the former slaves in Sierra Leone offered little comfort, and that prospect has remained largely unchanged for their descendents. There exists a direct relationship between prosperity and poverty. In such places, where so many still have so little, people are cheap enough to buy. They are bound by the shackles created by their own poverty. It was only when I visited Sierra Leone that I began to understand for myself that slavery was still very much alive 200 years after it was supposedly banned. Sierra Leone is recovering from a wretched war; unemployment is rife, at 90 per cent; and there are thousands of abandoned children roaming the streets. The reality in
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impoverished countries is that the only commodity that is readily available is a body, and bodies are cheap. Unfortunately, child prostitution is rife. It is immensely distressing to visit that beautiful country and look beyond the facade of sewage-strewn streets to see beautiful faces who daily pay the price of the rape of their nation that took place centuries ago.

If anyone wishes to deny the historical relevance of the transatlantic slave trade or seeks to downplay the continuing existence of slavery today, I tell them to go to Freetown. Children there have asked me to take them home, and they would be sent here willingly by many parents who are bereft of the opportunity to feed and clothe their own offspring. Liverpool city council is managing hundreds of children who are sent to this country unaccompanied to seek asylum. As a parent, I can understand why mothers in Sierra Leone and other desperately poor countries would want to send their children here. Here, children can go to school, and can expect to eat each day and to receive health care. In Sierra Leone, a quarter of children die before they reach the age of five.

Our challenge as a Government and a nation is to return the wealth gained on the back of the African continent to the descendents of those African nations, not just through our money, but through our skills and intellectual property. Sending money is easy, but we must all invest our time as well. We must sign a commitment pact to give something back.

The British Government are doing truly marvellous work in Sierra Leone, which is recovering from the violence and devastation of war and instability. They responded to President Kabbah in 2002 when he called for assistance to bring an end to the civil war that had seen tens of thousands of Sierra Leoneans mutilated, murdered and raped. Our Government have said that we will retain a presence in the country until 2015. We need to stay to send a clear signal to the despicable rebel leaders, who chose to exploit their own people for their own ends, that the country is protected.

The House might already be aware of the work of the British Council, which facilitates projects to share expertise and skills between different countries. Under its global skills partnership, 900 schools in the UK have been linked with counterparts in 80 different countries. This year, one of its themes is slavery. Some school twinning programmes are relatively straightforward. However, twinning in some countries is incredibly difficult, as communications, visits and security all militate against a successful twinning. Despite that, the British Council is working with communities across the UK to form strong links between our communities and those challenged countries in Africa.

I said earlier that giving money was a comparatively easy solution. The Government and the people of this nation want to do a lot more. I am sure that many of us who watched “Comic Relief” last week were not at all surprised to see that more than £40 million was raised in one evening. Sixty per cent. of that fund will be spent on supporting projects throughout Africa that are designed to protect and educate children and their mothers. Thousands of people in this country have decided to make a much bigger commitment, however, and to respond personally to the expressed needs of different African countries. That desire extends to people in my own constituency. It has been pointed out
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today that the slave trade was brought to an end not only by politicians, but through the will of the people. The delivery of Africa will be brought about by its own people raising their voices, and we have a duty—not only as politicians but as individuals—to support them.

In 2002, I travelled to Sierra Leone as part of a Commonwealth parliamentary delegation, under the chairmanship of Wyn Griffiths, the former MP for Bridgend. I had never been to Sierra Leone before, and it was a profoundly distressing experience. I saw the unimaginable deprivation common to the most challenged countries on the planet. The desperately poor people, the thousands of raped women and the 30,000 child soldiers were among the legacies of 15 years of civil war. I doubt that I could have survived such calamities had I not asked the head teacher of a local school how he managed. He replied, “Life happens. Life goes on.” And it does.

During my stay in Sierra Leone—with the support of the British Army, and particularly Lieutenant Colonel Steve Cook—I visited Waterloo, a great little town three miles outside Freetown. From that visit, the Waterloo Partnership was born. The partnership brings together the people of Waterloo in Sierra Leone and Waterloo in Liverpool. The two communities have made a 20-year commitment to each other and, unlike aid agencies or Governments, we will remain together come what may. None of us is paid, and we choose to work together in the one hope that together we will grow closer and stronger because, irrespective of where we are and who we are, people throughout the world have the same aspirations. We want the same things: a good education for our children; sufficient food to eat; and the means to support ourselves. That does not include selling our bodies.

So far, the Waterloo Partnership has raised £150,000. Crucially, we have sat down together to talk about the projects that we can achieve together, and about how we can tackle the problems that we face so that we do not return to the past. In partnership, there must be equal giving and taking. We can learn so much from our brothers and sisters in Sierra Leone about tolerance, forgiveness and living in religious harmony, and about teaching and farming practices.

The Waterloo Partnership is facilitating a cultural and educational exchange. So far, 11 teachers from Waterloo have travelled to Sierra Leone on the first of many school exchange visits. That will be the basis of our schools twinning programme. We want to twin all our schools, and we want all our children to learn about each other. We want them to understand their common roots.

In addition, we have involved the business community in helping us to deliver some of the bigger aspirations of our brothers and sisters in Waterloo, Sierra Leone. Those include equipping all the schools there. That is beyond the means of the Sierra Leone Government—only a third of the children in Sierra Leone go to school at the moment—but it is not beyond the means of Colin Crooks and his great team at Green-Works. Colin rang me after hearing a BBC World Service broadcast covering one of the Waterloo Partnership visits. He is in the fortunate position of receiving thousands of chairs and desks from some of
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the leading companies in the UK that prefer to recycle them rather than send them to landfill. He came with me to Sierra Leone last month, and surveyed every school in Waterloo. He has now put together a business plan to produce bespoke furniture for the schools there. Crucially, that project will generate vitally needed employment.

I must take this opportunity to thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his support; he is a wonderful socialist. He came out to Sierra Leone last month and visited Waterloo. He was received by thousands of delighted residents, children and representatives of different community groups, including the Waterloo Handicapped Association. That marvellous group of men, most of whom are wheelchair-bound, subsequently wrote to my right hon. Friend to thank him for his time and for sharing with them his stories about his disabled father. In their letter, they also expressed their profound hope that he could help them to find work. Generating employment lies at the heart of the work of the Waterloo Partnership, because without work, people become vulnerable to being traded, just for their bodies.

In addition, the Waterloo Partnership is seeking to build the largest library in west Africa. This was a good idea put forward not by the Waterloo Partnership in Liverpool but by the good people in Sierra Leone. I was interested in helping them with a capital project of their choosing. However, they did not choose a project involving sewerage or water; they chose a library, because a generation had missed its education. Many of us regard people in Africa as belittled and cowed by their experience, but they are actually just like us. They have huge aspirations and desires, and those will be accomplished by their ambition for a library. When asked for such a comparatively small thing, who would not rise to the challenge? I am proud to represent a community of people who really want to deliver the largest library in west Africa. We want to deliver a facility that we would be proud of in this country, because our brothers and sisters over there deserve no less.

Given that, 200 years ago, Merseyside helped to rob Africa of some of its best bodies and minds, it is fitting that, 200 years later, its descendants are doing something to help that same part of the world and, perhaps, to absolve the sins of our ancestors. They can never be absolved completely, however; they were mighty sins. But we do not do this merely to appease guilty consciences. I believe that reaching out is important if we are to create communities with integrity and cohesion at home. We are living in a globalised world in which issues such as slavery, prostitution and the trade in drugs, weapons and people are fundamentally linked with matters concerning economics, population, immigration, labour supply and the state of our society.

I am proud to be a member of a party that, in government, has done more than any other to tackle the problems of international development. It has created a Department for International Development at Cabinet level, and it is working with our partners to improve access to medicines, to combat AIDS and to fight corruption. It is also taking a lead on the world stage by doubling aid and writing off debt.

We cannot undo the past. We will never know what course Africa’s development might have taken had it not been for the transatlantic slave trade. The victims
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and the criminals of that trade will never see justice, but, given the problems faced by the countries of Africa—and our comparative prosperity—I am pleased that we now have the collective resolve to address the wrongs of the past by working together to build a better future.

7.29 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): The range of speeches in the debate has shown a balance between dwelling on the offence and commemorating its abolition. I was born within 5 miles of Pier Head, I lived briefly in a tobacco baron’s house in Glasgow, and I now represent a constituency in Aberdeenshire, from which some of the richest plantation owners originated. I guess that I have made a journey through the UK that has quite a lot of close connections with slavery and the slave trade.

In light of the speeches made by the hon. Members for Brent, South (Ms Butler) and for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), it is worth recording that, in 1796, 30 per cent. of the estates in Jamaica were owned by Scots. In 1817, 10 years after the abolition of the trade, 32 per cent. of the slaves in Jamaica were owned by Scots. We must acknowledge and face up to that. On the back of that trade, Glasgow claimed to be the second city of the empire, but I guess that, in that context, it is a pretty close call between Liverpool and Glasgow. Subsequently, Glasgow became one of the great powerhouses of the campaign to abolish slavery altogether, so there was some recognition among the population of Scotland that abolishing the slave trade was not enough; the condition of slavery needed to be abolished. It is a slight irony that some of the campaigners—not Wilberforce—wanted to abolish the slave trade only because they thought that the lack of supply might make the slave owners treat their slaves better. I guess that one must start with half the argument before the other half becomes the logical conclusion.

Having read up on the subject, it is probably worth putting on record some of the arguments put forward. James Ramsay, a cleric, made the following ironic comment against slavery:

Because they are just like us, however, they did not comply and fought for and ultimately won their freedom, as has been pointed out.

The arguments put forward in the campaign still make pretty harsh reading. The committee on behalf of the plantation owners stated:

That is a damning comment, and it was an argument put forcefully in defence of slavery and the slave trade at the time, with, I guess, campaigning zeal. That shows why it took more than 20 years to secure abolition.
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Like other Members, I am grateful that Scotland is acknowledging its role, and that several events are taking place in and around Glasgow and my city of Aberdeen that will enable the present generation to focus on that.

Another legacy of the way in which African slaves were treated is racism. They were treated as sub-human: the animals were probably better looked after than the slaves in transit. It is heartbreaking to read that not only were the conditions abominable but that family connections and loyalties were totally disregarded: families were split up, sold and moved around different plantations, never to see each other again.

Slavery has a long history. Greek and Roman civilisation—in which the origins of European civilisation lie—were founded on slavery and slave ownership. It is probably true that Aristotle and Socrates would not have had the time to think their philosophies through if they had not had the labour of slaves. We must acknowledge that.

Sadly, as others have said, slavery has not been abolished. The United Nations estimates that 27 million people are effectively enslaved today. The International Labour Organisation says that 12.1 million people are in forced labour of one form or another. In the spirit of the commemoration, we must take that issue forward and give a lead on it.

With regard to trafficking, a lot of the focus, as the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) pointed out, is on the sex trade and sex traffic. In fact, about 50 per cent. of those who are trafficked are men and 50 per cent. women. In the sex trade, it is 98 per cent. women and 2 per cent. men. Men and boys are still being sold into slavery in a variety of different ways, and that needs to be addressed. Clearly, however, this country is at the receiving end of a great many women who have been trafficked or sold into slavery.

It is shocking to read that women from eastern Europe and the Balkans, including places such as Moldova, have effectively been sold into slavery for cash by their own families—their brothers, fathers and supposed husbands. That is knowingly done on the clear understanding of what is happening. The girls are deceived and told that they are going to take up a job or opportunity. Only when it is too late do they realise into what they have been sold. In some cases, they might have had a good idea that they were being sold into some dubious activity, but they probably thought that they would have free choice and opportunity, not be imprisoned, brutalised, beaten and denied any of the revenue generated. Even worse, they can effectively be sold into slavery and then be told that they owe the slave owner money for the cost of getting them where they are and for their keep. Therefore, all the money that they earn is taken, and their reward is to be beaten, raped and denied their basic requirements.

I do not wish to be misinterpreted, but I want to press the Government a little harder on the issue of the UN convention on trafficking in human beings. As the Deputy Prime Minister knows, the cross-party advisory group that he has put together discussed the importance of signing that convention. It would be impossible to commemorate the abolition of slavery and not be a signatory to the convention. Forty-six or, if we count Montenegro, 47 countries are potential
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signatories. At present, 34 have signed, and Britain is one of those countries that have not. It is true that only five countries have ratified, and that 10 are required to do so for the convention to be implemented. If one looks at the countries that have not signed, however, one sees that we are not in the best of company. The major countries that have not signed are Russia, the United Kingdom and Spain. France, Germany, Italy, all the Scandinavian countries and most of the countries where the trafficking originates have signed.

I very much welcome the fact that we are going to sign the convention, but having tried to find out exactly what the Government’s reservations are, I hope for clarification soon of their timetable for ratifying and of the final legal framework. Until the convention is ratified, people who are trafficked do not appear to have any recourse. They are constantly told that they are illegal immigrants and have no rights, and that is one of the threats used to keep them quiet. They are told, “No one is going to help you, because you should not be here anyway.” They need to know and understand, if we can communicate with them at all, and if they can gain any information, that the United Kingdom has ratified a treaty that gives them rights: at least 30 days’ grace plus, possibly, reflection time, and no conditions on whether they testify about to how they are treated. It would be helpful if the Minister were able to tell us a little more in her reply. We need to find out shortly what the conditions are and what will be the passage of time between the signing and ratification of the convention by the United Kingdom. That would make a good and sound connection between the commemoration and the current situation.

The parliamentary campaign that led to the abolition of slavery has rightly been acknowledged as a model, which has probably never been equalled. It required such extraordinary expenditure of effort that perhaps it inevitably gained a resonance, whereas nowadays there are so many campaigns and means of campaigning that it is difficult to raise one above the rest and achieve such change. Nevertheless, engagement that involves people on the ground matters more than anything if a campaign is to be effective.

Points have been made about the inequalities that persist between Britain and Africa, and the descendants of slaves and the countries in which slavery operated. Much remains to be done. The International Development Committee, which I chair, had an informal briefing this morning from the Strategic Foresight Group. Its ideas about and analysis of the causes of division, terrorism and extremism are interesting. It also makes some practical suggestions about tackling that. It pointed out that in the United States, which, as nobody needs telling, is the world’s largest economy, a significant proportion of households in 29 states have an income of less than $25,000—a per capita income of $10,000 to $15,000. Of course, the group acknowledged that that would be a high salary in African terms, but it is a low income in the United States. The group made the point that Pentecostal Christianity and white supremacist groups have grown in precisely the states where such pockets of low-income earners are abundant. That shows that the legacy of slavery survives where there is racial discrimination and deprivation.


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