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20 Mar 2007 : Column 763

The debate is certainly worth having; it is not only a reminder of what has been achieved over the past 200 years but a stark reminder of how far we still have to go. Passing a law to abolish slavery shows a nation’s intention, but implementing it shows a nation’s commitment. When I was researching for the debate, I found—no doubt like other Members—interesting references and snippets of information. We have just celebrated St. Patrick’s day. St. Patrick was a slave. He was born in Roman Britain and taken to Ireland as a slave. He must have grown accustomed to the place because he returned and was involved in the Church, and is remembered on 17 March. Aesop is another slave who has not yet been mentioned in the debate. The inspiration for his famous fables was drawn from his period of slavery.

Many historical incidents reflect aspects of slavery and the slave trade, but the most important thing to remember is that slavery is not just connected with Africa. It forms a darker chapter in the development of every world civilisation. In the book of Exodus, which may be one of the first detailed accounts of a movement to free slaves, we read how Moses led the Israelite slaves from ancient Egypt. Other Members have mentioned that slavery formed part of life in the ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman empires. Even the Vikings participated in slavery. Japan had advanced laws governing slavery from the eighth century.

In all those civilisations, there were common factors in slavery. Enslavement could be the punishment for a crime or the consequence of a debt. Prisoners of war could be enslaved. Even more seriously, some people were born as slaves and grew up already part of the slave operation. As Rome expanded, entire populations were enslaved and we pay tribute to many people who opposed their slavery. The name of Spartacus will be familiar—he led the revolt in the third Servile war—but we should pay tribute to many others across the globe.

The middle east is probably responsible for one of the oldest slave trades. Male slaves were used as servants, soldiers or labourers by their owners and the practice continued until the 20th century. Closer to home, although slavery in the form of the trade of serfs was made illegal in England in 1102, it was used as a punishment by Cromwell’s new model army to deal with Catholics in Ireland. Their land was confiscated and they were sent to the West Indies. Serfdom resurfaced when “personal servants”, as slaves were called, were brought from Africa in the 18th century—the aspect on which most of the debate has focused.

We stand alongside many other European countries, including Portugal, Holland and France, as the main perpetrators of slavery, robbing Africa of its people and developing what is now referred to as the triangular trade that linked Europe, Africa and the new world. As has been said, until 1772 the legal status of slaves was unclear. The first challenge came from James Somerset, a runaway slave whose owner wanted to pack him off to Jamaica. However, because he had been baptised in England, he could take his case to the courts and the judge decided that under common law slavery had no legal status, which meant that the 14,000 or so slaves in England at the time were emancipated.

The British anti-slavery movement, under the Quakers, did not begin until 1783. In May 1787, the committee for the abolition of the slave trade was
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formed, and included various people we have already heard about today—Joseph Woods, William Wilberforce and Granville Sharp. From 1789, abolition Bills were repeatedly proposed until eventually George III approved one on this day 200 years ago. But, of course, the measure did not free the slaves. It simply made the slave trade illegal. As has been mentioned, slaves were not freed until 1833. It is interesting to note that the Church was not exempt from participating in the trade. In 1834, following the emancipation of slaves under an Act of Parliament, the Bishop of Exeter received compensation of £100 per slave. He was forced to set free 665 slaves.

The supply of slaves, mostly from Africa, and the demand in the Americas is at the heart of today’s debate. It is estimated that about 15 million people were shipped from Africa. Sadly, about 15 per cent. of them died while being captured or on route. The great majority were shipped to the Americas. When I visited the national museum in Tobago quite recently, I was astonished to read some of the extracts and accounts not only from some of the slaves that had been freed, but, more hauntingly, from some of the traffickers and the traders, who had labelled slaves in various groups—almost like cattle stock. They referred to the slaves’ strengths, co-operativeness, brains and so forth, depending on what part of Africa they had come from. That is how advanced the trade had become.

The growth of the colonies fed the appetite for slaves. Jamestown led the way by writing into law the rights of slave ownership. With Canada and Mexico banning slavery in 1810, a complex network of escape routes to allow slaves to depart from the colonies, either north or south, was created by people who were trying for abolition. Harriet Tubman was one of the founders of what was called the underground railway, which allowed slaves to move either north or south and get away from their owners. The slavery issue was not reconciled until the American civil war. There are many factors that one could say led to the dividing of the nation.

I was pleased to hear the Deputy Prime Minister pay tribute to the replica of the Amistad, the slave ship that sailed in 1839, with a host of slaves on board. That replica is coming to the United Kingdom shortly. The original ship set out from the African slave factory in Lomboko, which is now Sierra Leone. While it was heading towards Cuba, there was a mutiny and the slaves took over the ship. They did not know where they were going. They wanted to return to Africa, but they were misled by the Spanish who were still on the ship and ended up heading up the coast of the United States. The ship was eventually stopped by the USS Washington—by the American navy. There followed a long and public battle, which eventually led to a judgment by the Supreme Court. Thanks to a former President, John Quincy Adams, that represented a major breakthrough for the abolitionists.

It is interesting to look at the views of the sitting President, Martin Van Buren. I managed to get an extract from the Hartford Courant, which was obviously the Bournemouth Daily Echo of its day. It states:

It is a welcome sign of the times that the press in that day had the freedom to make such comments, but the extract is also an indication of the society of the day, in which slavery was so accepted that the President wanted to interfere with a court case simply to ensure the status quo.

Such events cut the nation in two and clearly led to the civil war. It was not until after the civil war, under Abraham Lincoln, that the 13th amendment was signed to declare slavery unlawful. However, although the law changed, attitudes did not, and from that time blacks were considered to be second-class citizens. As we know, there was segregation, and it was not until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that blacks obtained legal protection from racial discrimination. Sadly, the slow speed of reform is perhaps at the heart of the problems that exist in the United States, which have galvanised attitudes.

Of course, the oppression of individuals, countries and races is not limited simply to blacks. We should pay tribute to those who were caught up in the Japanese labour camps, such as those involved in the Burma railway, the concentration camps in Nazi Germany and the Russian gulags. We should not forget the heroes who fought and, in many cases, died to challenge the regimes that advocated those forms of slavery.

Let me move on to the challenges that we face now. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), who spoke with passion about the problems of human trafficking, as did other hon. Members. The idea of slavery has not disappeared; it has simply gone underground. Despite various acts by the United Nations, including drafting article IV of the universal declaration of human rights, which explicitly bans slavery, it is still a problem today. A UN report suggests that the victims of slavery come from some 127 countries throughout the world. The major destinations of victims include wealthy countries in western Europe, north America and the middle east. As has been said again and again, women make up 70 per cent. of worldwide trafficking cases and sexual exploitation is a factor in 87 per cent. of those cases, while forced labour is another factor.

People are encouraged to leave their home countries under false pretences. They are enticed by being told that a better life is ahead of them. They are promised work in the hospitality or domestic work industries, but once they reach their destination, their official documents are removed and they are forced into either bonded labour, or prostitution. I understand from the police that about 4,000 people are involved in some form of forced prostitution in the United Kingdom at any one time. The gangs behind the trade buy and sell women for between £2,000 and £8,000. Even though the individuals are given a small amount of money, they are hugely in debt, so they can never get out of the circle of distress in which they find themselves.

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I am pleased that the Government have taken a number of initiatives. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 introduced a new offence of trafficking someone into the UK for the purposes of sexual exploitation, while the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004 criminalised the trafficking of people for any form of exploitation. Although I was encouraged by the words of the Deputy Prime Minister, we must—this has been repeated time and again—finally ratify the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings. Ratification is long overdue. The convention addresses the standards of living that are capable of ensuring individuals’ subsistence, access to emergency medical treatment, translation and interpretation services, and counselling and information. We should be providing such vital things, given that our colleagues across the water in Europe have already agreed to do so.

The Conservative party is in tandem with other parties on this matter. We have made major announcements on tackling human trafficking, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) pointed out. We not only want the Council of Europe convention to be signed, but believe that we need to establish a UK border police force with expertise in intercepting traffickers and victims at our borders. We think that there should be separate interviews at all airports for women and children travelling alone with an adult who is not a parent, guardian or husband. We should strengthen co-ordination among the relevant Government Departments and the Serious Organised Crime Agency to tackle the problem. We should also ensure that every police force has a strategy to deal with suspected victims of trafficking.

In conclusion, it has been a sobering debate, allowing us to reacquaint ourselves with the challenges of the future as well as to celebrate some of the successes from the past. Britain can certainly be proud of its actions in righting many of those wrongs, but let us not forget that slavery takes many forms and that, despite the progress made in removing the legitimate and overt forms of slavery, it is now the illegitimate and covert exploitation of slavery that still exists.

There is much work to be done and if Britain is to continue as a beacon for human rights, we must recognise the advances in transport and communication that have led to the development of a truly global challenge in respect of the trafficking of humans. If we are finally to stop the appalling trade of human traffic, we must have an international effort. We celebrate the anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, but let us use this opportunity to recommit ourselves to tackling slavery in the horrible and horrendous form that it has taken—and always will take.

8.46 pm

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate and to welcome, on behalf of my party, the opportunity to remember an historic decision taken by this House, which removed a blemish on our history. We have listened to descriptions of the treatment of fellow human beings—the numbers in the trade who died, were abused, lost their dignity and freedom, were hurt or damaged, and those who live today with the consequences. We cannot run away from the fact that it
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was a blemish on our history, but it is important that we remember it, because it is part of this country’s history.

On the other hand, I want to make it quite clear that I agree with the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) that there is no cause for apology. I note that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, when visiting America recently, apologised on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland for the part that it played in the slave trade. There is an irony, of course. Although Belfast was well placed as a port on the right side of the United Kingdom to have benefited from the slave trade, because of the strong evangelical Christian influence in Northern Ireland at the turn of the 18th century, it did not do so. Indeed, there was a very strong lobby against slavery in that part of Ireland—northern Ireland—at that time. There are certainly plenty of other things that, if he had wanted to, the Secretary of State could have apologised for, but I will not go into those tonight, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as you would probably call me to order for digressing.

The historic decision that was taken illustrates the role that can be played—and was played—by someone who was strongly motivated and able to use the advantages of the climate of the time in which he lived and the support that he gained. Much has been said in the House today about William Wilberforce, but as has been pointed out, he was not alone. At the age of 10, he was influenced by his meeting with John Newton, the slave trader turned parson. Then he met Thomas Clarkson. I cannot provide the same detail about Thomas Clarkson’s life as the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), but one thing that we do know is that at a time when much that happened in the slave trade was buried beneath the surface—we did not have the media of today—he risked life and limb to find out about the methods and facts of the trade, which he brought to Wilberforce’s attention. Wilberforce studied those reports to establish the effect of the trade first on the slaves themselves, and secondly on Africa and the colonies to which they were taken. He then made up his mind to oppose it in the House of Commons by means of parliamentary procedure.

Wilberforce was helped by a strong evangelical Christian climate. There were the Quakers—who have already been mentioned—the Methodists and, in the Church of England, the Clapham sect, all of whom created a climate that encouraged people to abhor the slave trade and the way in which it denigrated and damaged fellow human beings. Wilberforce was also helped by the courage of Africans who used the opportunities available to them. We have heard today about Sam Sharpe, the Baptist preacher in Jamaica who persuaded slaves there that it was not right to lie down under slavery, and about Equiano, who wrote an autobiography that had a great influence in the United Kingdom. Wilberforce was not alone, and those who were with him used all the methods that have been described today: lobbying, slogans, trade bans and, indeed, propaganda. Clarkson recognised more than anyone else that a human interest story, a story of individuals and the way in which they had been affected, could capture people’s hearts.

Twenty-odd years before he succeeded in his aim, Wilberforce stood in the House of Commons and said:
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That determination and strength of character enabled Wilberforce to take on the establishment. As we have heard, Lord Mayors of Liverpool benefited from and lobbied for the slave trade. Members of Parliament were bought by the colonists, who spoke of economic ruin if the trade was not allowed to continue.

It is significant that Wilberforce succeeded in persuading the House to act against the economic and political interests of our country in order to do away with a great evil. A mere Back Bencher, described by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) as an independent, was able to have that degree of influence because of the determination with which he had set his face against the slave trade. I wonder whether today—given that the House of Commons has handed much of its power to other bodies in Europe and elsewhere, and given that even the power that does rest here has been absorbed into the Executive—it would be possible for a campaigning Back Bencher to turn around the country’s economic policy in the face of established interests. I doubt it very much.

As other Members have pointed out, slavery is still with us. As long as there are people who are strong and people who are weak, there will be opportunity for slavery. Human beings and human nature being what they are, those weaknesses will be exploited. When we go on holiday and see the great pyramids in Egypt, we are seeing monuments to slavery; indeed, we can see monuments to slavery in our own civilisation, built by people who were enslaved and used as economic tools at various times in world history.

Today, of course, there are still strong people who exploit and take advantage of those who are weak. Numerous examples have been mentioned, but I shall give just two. The first is pertinent to Northern Ireland. When the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs looked into the subject of organised crime, it considered the role that paramilitaries play in exploiting people who are trafficked into the United Kingdom and who are either used for cheap labour or sexually exploited.

Of course, the problem is not unique to Northern Ireland—organised criminals are doing the same in other parts of the United Kingdom—but if we are to convince people in Northern Ireland that there will be an end to paramilitarism, and that the ill-gotten gains of paramilitarism will not remain with people who exploit human weakness, we must robustly take those people on, whether they have political influence or not. It may mean making hard decisions in the so-called peace process, but it is important that the message goes out that people who engage in such activity will face the full brunt of the law and will lose their ill-gotten gains.

On that point, I hope that the change in the organisation of the Assets Recovery Agency will not diminish the ability of the authorities in Northern Ireland to take away from those who gain from the sex trade and from using trafficked individuals. I hope that it does not concentrate its activities on the bigger
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players in the organised crime market and leave those at a lower level, who nevertheless gain from such trade. We seek assurances from the Government that that will not be the case. Of course, sentences must be severe, too.

My second example is a form of slavery from which we in this country benefit to a certain extent. It is indentured labour, which is sometimes found in this country. For example, in the Morecambe bay incident, in which people brought into the country by gangmasters were exploited for very low wages, we saw that people can become victims of what is virtually a slave trade. We also benefit from cheap consumer goods, and some good investigative reporting has been done on that subject; sometimes, people work in conditions that are little short of slavery. I listened to what the hon. Member for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin) said about free trade, but if there are no conditions attached to trade, it can help to further exploitation, because it gives freer access to western markets, and provides an even greater incentive to those who want to exploit labour in third-world countries—it encourages them to do so.

There is one other form of slavery that I want to mention, but I do not want to detract in any way from the suffering of people who have been subject to slavery through the ages. Slavery means the weak, the vulnerable and the desperate being exploited, and I believe that the Government have created a climate in which many people in this country will find themselves enslaved, not by having their freedom taken away from them, but by the addictions to which they are prone. Opportunities are being put in their way. Powerful arguments have been made by Government Members for 24-hour drinking and a casino-type society. We are providing opportunities, because of the powerful economic arguments that have been advanced, for people to become enslaved to their addictions.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The hon. Gentleman is pushing the limits of the debate further even than I could have believed possible, so I offer him a word of warning.

Sammy Wilson: I thought that you might warn me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I shall move on.

I simply wish to say that we must be vigilant, as there are all kinds of ways in which the weak and the vulnerable can be exploited by the economically powerful. Whether it is trafficking, whether it is bonded labour and the way in which it is used to reduce costs and so on, or whether it is the things that I have just mentioned, it is important that Government policy should aim to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.

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