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8.8 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh). She made a thoughtful speech that examined some of the challenges of 220 years ago and
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put them in a modern context, and she outlined the challenges that remain. I apologise to the House for not being here for the opening speeches. I want to make a brief contribution to what has been a moving debate.

Thanks to the diligence of the Library, I discovered that one of my ancestors played a small part in the parliamentary proceedings leading to the abolition of slavery. The report of our proceedings on 18 April 1791 has a speech by William Wilberforce in which he says:

There have been six Sir George Youngs between that one and this one. That one was serving in the Navy; he went on to become an Admiral. In a letter dated 14 October 1787, he says:

In fact, following an Order in Council dated 11 Feb 1788 concerning

he was examined before the Bar of the House on the African slave trade and, we are told,

I hope that that gene has survived.

Sir George Young gave evidence which was summarised in the Committee’s report, which stated:

the slaves—

He also said that


He went on board a ship of 300 tons, in which there were 520 slaves.

Sir George was cross-examined by their Lordships about the stock of slaves in the West Indies. He replied that

That was an inhuman attitude, treating people no better than cattle.

What appalled my ancestor was not just the overcrowding of the slaves, but the poor treatment of the sailors—

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Elsewhere in his evidence, he calls them “Emaciated wretched objects”. He also said:

He was concerned that, at a time when we were heavily dependent on the Navy and on sailors, the reserve of manpower was being seriously depleted by the irresponsible behaviour of those owning the ships in which the slaves were transported.

The right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) mentioned some of the excuses that were put forward to justify the trade. A report was made to Mr. Speaker in 1789 by a joint council, which concluded:

The subtext was why should people worry about exploitation in the West Indies when there was worse exploitation somewhere else. Another pretext was the financial consequences of abolition. The joint council said:

Happily, that special pleading was swept aside and there is no longer any moral debate about slavery, although—as many contributors to this debate have said—the practical application of slavery remains a problem. In some of the arguments that were put forward 220 years ago, we see precursors of other debates, such as poverty wages for suppliers of imported goods. It is still argued that if we do not import them someone else will. On CO2 emissions, people ask why we should cut our emissions when others do not. The same moral argument is made about the export of land mines: if we do not sell them, someone else will.

It struck me, listening to the debate this evening, that we need the moral certainty and conviction of Wilberforce, who recognised that something was wrong and had the stamina and the courage to continue until he won the argument. I hope that, in 220 years time, when the descendants of those who take part in this debate look at Hansard, they will find that some of us have said something useful and on the right side of the argument.

8.15 pm

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): Those of us who have been present in the Chamber today have enjoyed an informative historical analysis of slavery
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and our country’s part in it. The right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), a colleague of mine on the International Development Committee, mentioned the role of my city, Glasgow, in the slave trade. Any hon. Members who have visited Glasgow will probably have attended or at least passed by the impressive neo-classical fa├žade of our gallery of modern art in Queen’s street. The building has had a varied history. Until a few years ago, it was the Stirling library and it has also been a telephone exchange, a bank and a stock market, but when it was originally built in 1778, at the then staggering cost of £100,000, it was the town house for William Cunninghame, a prominent Glasgow tobacco baron.

Cunninghame headed one of the three major syndicates that controlled the flow of tobacco into Scotland. He developed a string of outlets and representatives in the tobacco colonies, which bought tobacco from the planters and stored it until his ships arrived. His trading system was one of the most efficient and swift in the north Atlantic and it yielded enormous profits. The tobacco barons of Glasgow were the London billionaires of their day. Cunninghame’s mansion is one of Scotland’s finest houses, but it stands today as a reminder of our city’s links to tobacco cultivated by enslaved people, and the profits tobacco yielded to the major Scottish merchants who dominated the trade throughout western Europe.

At the beginning of the 18th century, Glasgow was a poor town on the wrong side of a poor, isolated country on the fringes of Europe. Scotland’s main trading partners were the Baltic states across the North sea and Scotland’s ruling classes had been bankrupted by their investment in the disastrous Darien scheme in 1690. But by the end of that century Glasgow was transformed into the second city of the empire, at the forefront of the new industrial society.

The greatest rate of development, outpacing anything seen in the rest of the United Kingdom, occurred between 1740 and 1790, when Glasgow found its niche in the business of slavery. Slaves were never auctioned in Glasgow, but the city benefited by directly supplying the American colonies with manufactured goods, linen cloth and iron, without which they could not survive. The ships then returned to the UK with colonial goods, mainly tobacco from Maryland and Virginia, but also sugar and other exotic products from the Caribbean. For that, the traders had the Navigation Acts to thank, which were the backbone of the British empire until they were repealed in 1799. Essentially, all manufactured goods to be consumed in the British empire had to be produced in Britain and conveyed between Britain and its colonies in British ships. In that fashion, British shipping and British industry were promoted to the detriment of the colonies, which was one of the main reasons behind the American revolution.

Streets in Glasgow, such as Glassford street, Buchanan street, Virginia street, and Jamaica street, are all named after either tobacco merchants or colonies. Even today, the city centre is still dotted with the mansions of tobacco merchants. Glasgow and Scotland’s wealthy pre-eminence in the world was based firmly within the British empire system. Far from being involved in the slave trade to a lesser extent than England, Scotland’s smaller size and greater levels of
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poverty meant the impact of that obscene and wealthy trade was actually greater on Scotland than anywhere else in the country.

All the components—huge disparities in wealth, unfair trading rules with heavy protectionist policies and exploitation of labour without protection—were present to permit slavery on an industrial scale for the dawning of a new industrial age. Slavery in the horrific form known in 1807 may be in our past, but those components of exploitation are still with us in the modern age, aided by globalisation and modern day conflicts. Until we tackle all those injustices, we will not see an end to the modern versions of slavery in this world.

Just as in the 18th and 19th centuries, we have a tendency to view the problem through the prism of a few world leaders or western campaigners, and we do not recognise that many of the advances of recent times are due to the struggles of thousands of ordinary people throughout the developing world. In her excellent contribution, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) pointed out that a truly grass-roots campaign for change took place, both in the colonies and in this country, with hundreds of thousands of people participating. Today’s debate gives us an opportunity to recognise and salute their invaluable contribution, both now and in the past. We must examine how we need to change if we are truly to give freedom to everyone.

As has been noted, some of the symptoms of modern-day slavery are not hard to find. Sadly, human trafficking is evident in just about every town and city in western Europe. The figures that we have discussed today are probably only very rough estimates—700,000 people affected by slavery worldwide, with perhaps 4,000 adults and up to 5,000 children in the UK at any one time. What is clear, however, is that the problem has been escalating at an incredible rate over the past 10 years.

The Government’s response over the past 12 months shows that they are stepping up to the mark. They have agreed to sign the European convention, and they have also put in place the new human traffic incentive in Sheffield, the home city of my hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality. I am sure that she will say more about that when she winds up the debate.

The success of the Pentameter operation in a few short months last year showed the scale of the challenge. As a nation, we must devote suitable resources—and time—to the problem, through our public and voluntary agencies. I also welcome the announcement that the Home Office is due to make later this week about a UK-wide assistance scheme. I want to recommend to Ministers, and especially those in the Home Office, the success of the individualised-case approach that has been taken in Glasgow. The Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance project is a partnership initiative involving Glasgow city council, Strathclyde police, the Scottish Executive, the voluntary sector and the Home Office.

In many ways, the Tara project mirrors the POPPY project that was mentioned earlier. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) said, both projects give women a reflection period, in which they can recover and consider their futures. They also allow
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those women to assist the police authorities, and all that is vital if we are to have any way of tackling the problem effectively. I also want to reiterate what my hon. Friend said about the good examples in Italy, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, where reflection periods are standard and there is much greater access to refuge assistance. Higher rates of prosecutions and convictions are secured in those countries, but it is inevitable that the trade will continue to flourish here if we do not put in place adequate deterrents.

However, by its very nature, trafficking is hidden. There is increasing evidence of people being trafficked to work as domestic slaves, which makes detection even more fraught. I share the concerns that the Government’s plans to prohibit migrant domestic workers from changing employers may aggravate that problem. When they announce the plans later this week, I hope that the Government will take account of the effect on other policies, and ensure that more barriers are not put up to giving the most vulnerable people in our country adequate protection.

We also need to ensure that all our public agencies are made aware of trafficking. I was interested to hear about an experiment in Edinburgh, where airport parking attendants have been trained by the police to spot trafficking gangs hanging around, waiting for their next human collections. The attendants have passed on valuable evidence to the police, and I hope that a similar system could be developed at all our airports and ports, to make use of the knowledge that staff have of the way that people travel in and out.

I turn now to something that has been mentioned in the debate already, but which I believe is very well worth saying again. We need to drive home to the clients of prostitutes the sort of abuse that they may be maintaining. There is no supply without demand, and we need to alter the focus of prosecution. The clients of prostitutes should know better: they should know that the people involved—many of them under the age of 18—are often in abusive relationships, or suffer dreadful abuse.

However, slavery is not confined to western Europe or the west in general. Last month, I visited Ethiopia with the International Development Committee, and one of the local organisations that we visited carried out work to protect young children from poor rural areas who had been sent to towns and cities in the hope of a better life but who had often ended up as mere chattels. Child labour and bonded labour are still prevalent in many areas of Africa and Asia.

We need to continue to assist the Governments in the countries involved, and organisations such as the International Labour Organisation and the Institute of Migration, to find ways to tackle the abuses effectively and to change the way that society tolerates such behaviour. People need basic labour rights, but we have to put in place the mechanisms to enforce them. Free and independent trade unions were an essential component in our own development as a democracy, but too frequently they are overlooked as a means of tackling abuses such as trafficking.

Earlier in my speech, I mentioned the economic components that drove the slave trade 200 years ago.
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They are still to be found, and it is the disparities and lack of economic opportunity to which they give rise that create so many opportunities for the human traffickers. Despite the fine words of the past few years following the start of the World Trade Organisation’s Doha round, we are still far away from delivering even a small amount of trade justice to the poorest nations. Time after time, we create or sustain systems that have been used to exploit. They have exploited the weaknesses in regulation in the poorest countries, the tax havens that take billions of pounds away from the world's poorest, and the dumping of our unwanted food. Those systems have also enjoyed the fruits of the “brain drain” or been used to support corrupt and undemocratic regimes. Some western Governments are already shying away from the aid commitments that they made in 2005, claiming that they are too expensive—but the question surely is, too expensive for whom?

This week’s anniversary reminds us that slave trading was once the status quo, as the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) correctly pointed out. We used every type of excuse to justify its existence. Today, we are being asked to challenge and change our version of the status quo, and to acknowledge that all of us still benefit economically from coerced or exploited labour somewhere on the planet.

Rather than throwing up the walls of protection and trying to isolate ourselves from the suffering caused by abject poverty, we need to work towards a global economy that places priority on providing meaningful employment for all, not just for a chosen few. We need a global economy in which labour rights are fully respected, and where nations have a fair chance to trade and to retain the fruits of their labour.

8.27 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I greatly enjoyed the contribution of the hon. Member for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin), who wove aspects of Glasgow’s role in the slave trade into some of the modern challenges we face, and on which I hope to comment.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) who paid tribute to his ancestors—I hope that many more George Youngs will grace the Chamber talking about this and other subjects.

The debate has been comprehensive, enjoyable and informative, although I was sceptical about participating in it. After I heard the Prime Minister apologise for the slave trade, I wondered what else we might need to apologise for. Should we apologise for the Croke Park stadium massacre in Ireland, or the Rorke’s Drift incident? Should the fire brigade apologise because the Pudding lane fire in 1666 was not put out in time and led to the great fire of London? Political correctness seems to creep in occasionally. However dark our history, is it for today’s leaders to apologise for events with which they have no direct connection? Perhaps the symbolism attached to such events makes it appropriate to comment on them. We certainly have much to learn about them.

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