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My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) mentioned human trafficking and the problems associated with it. He asked a series of questions which I know the Minister will respond to as effectively as she can. He asked whether, despite our recognition of
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trafficking and our understanding of where it begins, enough is being done. That was also asked by the hon. Members for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) and for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin), both of whom made reference to the worries that they have and wondered whether operations such as the Poppy project are doing enough—and whether we can ever do enough. Have we perhaps found the answer to the question that is so often posed in schools: “If William Wilberforce were alive today, what cause would he be involved in?” Perhaps the answer to that is human trafficking, and making sure that our policies deal with it a lot more effectively. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes raised the issue of human trafficking with great passion, and I hope that he will receive proper replies to his detailed questions, either in the debate or by letter if they cannot be answered tonight.

Sadly, we could have picked up on other examples of slavery. We could have pointed to the problem of child soldiers around the world, and particularly in Africa. In 2006, the United Nations estimated that more than 250,000 children were actively involved in armed conflict. That problem is most critical in Africa where up to 100,000 children, some as young as nine years old, were estimated to be involved in armed conflict in mid-2004. Forcible abductions, sometimes of large numbers of children, continue to occur in some countries. We could also have picked up on any number of examples of people—children especially—being taken into work, such as starting as domestics and being put into bondage and slavery, or being fooled into taking a job and then finding themselves involved in prostitution.

CHASTE—Churches Alert to Sex Trafficking Across Europe—is run by the Reverend Dr. Carrie Pemberton, with whom I am speaking on the replica Zong on Monday, with the Minister as well, I think. [Interruption.] Perhaps she will not be there. The Minister has already met my friend. CHASTE is having a day of action on 20 May called “Not for sale Sunday”, in which it will try to tackle demand, which was mentioned by many Members, and to raise awareness of the problem of sexual exploitation in the UK and the number of women who are brought in to service that appalling trade. The many Members who spoke about that with passion and concern made their points very well, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) who, sadly, cannot be with us as his wife was taken a little ill at a reception at Buckingham palace tonight. We understand that she is perfectly well, and we wish Lady Cormack well.

It would be remiss of me in concluding not to pay particular tribute to the man without whom we would certainly not be commemorating this particular night.

That the slave trade would have ended I have no doubt, but the merest glimpse into William Wilberforce’s personal history is enough to convince even the most cynical of today’s cynical age that his character was of such strength that his drive for this cause hastened the end of an evil trade in the British empire.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) spoke eloquently about “her Wilberforce” and his legacy in that town, as did my
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hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire and the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton), who also spoke of Wilberforce’s connections with the Clapham sect—of whom more in a minute.

Wilberforce was a brilliant man who fancied a career in politics and was clever and wealthy enough through family to buy a seat in the Commons. So far, so corrupt—like virtually any other of his age. Had he simply latched on to a cause in order to make his name and used this cruel trade for his own advancement and enrichment, we would be right in being embarrassed at the attention paid to him and his role, notwithstanding his success. However, that is not the case. Even in that age, as now, that an able politician should give up the chance to get on in the party and aspire to office seemed decidedly odd. As we know from our own experience, the able colleague who leaves mid-career to “spend more time with the family” appears to be using code that the Westminster village understands all too well. They are either up to something, have been up to something, or were never up to the job in any case.

That is why Wilberforce was so special. All the evidence suggests that here was a man who had a wonderful political career and future, but who changed his life completely, and with it the course of history, because of Jesus Christ and a profound process of conversion. It is well documented—there is evidence from Wilberforce himself, and from contemporaries hostile and friendly—that his process of conversion included a period of reflection, familiar to millions around the world, on the point of life and the use of his talents. As his character changed, his attention turned to slavery, and he spent more and more time with those of similar mind. He resolved to take up in Parliament the cause of ending the slave trade, which was a necessary precursor to the abolitionist’s aim: ending slavery itself.

The passage of time should not dim our understanding of what an undertaking that was. The wealth of more than one great city, as we have heard from a number of Members today, was built on cruelty to others. Throughout the attempts to end the trade, the serious impact on the country and on individuals was used as a counter-argument, in a way not dissimilar to the use of tariffs today to protect the European Union or the United States from the impact of the trade in goods from poorer countries. There is always a good argument for profit. This was a grown-up debate, in which Wilberforce was on the “wrong” side. He was more than a maverick—he was a dangerous one. There was no political gain to be made, as has been mentioned. There was no certainty of a happy ending when he took on the fight; no suggestion that, as in a film, he would triumph for right in the final reel. He faced, as nameless others did in that cause—and as nameless others have done since in every cause worth fighting against tyranny—a failed career and an unsung death.

However, Wilberforce carried on, and it was 20 long years before he succeeded. He succeeded not only because his cause was just, although it was. He succeeded not only because he was a great orator, although he was. He succeeded not simply because he and his friends had mobilised hundreds of thousands of people in a mass campaign in a manner never seen before, although they did. He succeeded because of his
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personal conviction, as an evangelical Christian, that his faith was not a matter for Sundays only—that it must be carried into every part of his life, and that his talents were to be set apart for God and his purposes, for the good of society around him.

Wilberforce was not alone. He was surrounded by those who led him spiritually and shared his faith. However, this, too, was an act of courage. The Christian Church in this country did not have clean hands. Good Christian men and women turned their backs on those in need, and Wilberforce’s bravery in confronting them was as profound as was his bravery in politics. The achievements of the Clapham sect and of the evangelical movement in reforming social conditions have had a profound influence on the nation. Shaftesbury, Fry, William Booth, Barnardo and the unsung who worked with them and inspired them deserve their commemoration and thanks, too.

I turn finally to legacy. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North told us about what is happening in Hull and its commitment to fair trade; what a remarkable way to build on a legacy. The hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), in a moving and wholly compelling contribution, described not only what her city has been through, but, through its twinning with Waterloo, what it is doing for the future. All those who listened to her will be pleased that they did. What a remarkable way to carry on from that past.

The right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) raised the issue of Doha, as did the hon. Member for Glasgow, North, and how that could be an adequate legacy if we could take on the need for trade. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), in his contribution from the Front Bench, dealt with the elephant in the room—the difficult issue of an apology—and several other colleagues also mentioned it. I take the view that it is very difficult to apologise on behalf of others. If people do not want to apologise for the slave trade and the shame that it brought on this country, they must come from another planet, but the issue is not the words used or who apologises to whom. It is about what we do with what happened, and about responding with sincerity and integrity to the shame of the past. More than one hon. Member got the balance right.

The hon. Members for Brent, South and for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington talked about the need for a greater pride in black history, and perhaps the dangerous legacy left from slavery in the culture of young men and violence. That took the debate into difficult, but typically brave territory that needs to be confronted in a society such as ours. If only all the legacies of slavery were dealt with by the good hearts of people in places such as Waterloo and if only it were not as difficult in some areas as it is. The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) made a strong contribution, as did the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams).

It is not the knowledge of history that shames us. When people talk about whether we should have this debate and remember slavery, it is the lack of knowledge that shames us. We are not responsible for the past, but we are responsible for what our children learn now. With an understanding of the trade, its rise, fall and rise again, they will learn that the attitudes
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behind it are not past attitudes, but present-day ones. Greed is predominant. There is money to be made from exploitation and cruelty, so support those who fight against greed and exploitation wherever it arises—from children kidnapped into sex slavery in eastern Europe to Chinese workers who give their life savings to agents who see them dead in the back of a wagon or on the sands of Morecambe bay. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) noted, slavery is oppressive and knows no bounds, no race, no colour and no country.

I conclude with the words of Wilberforce himself. In a speech on 24 February 1807, described in The Parliamentary Register as

he concluded that the House must

Would that all of us in this place would have those words of William Wilberforce as the epitaph for our work.

9.43 pm

The Minister for Women and Equality (Meg Munn): This has been an extraordinary debate and I am deeply honoured to respond to it on behalf of the Government. We have heard 16 speeches by Back Benchers and I will try to do justice to the points that hon. Members have raised. In the time available, I may not be able to be as thorough as I would have liked.

It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) and to endorse many of his remarks. I also entirely agree with him about the opening speeches from my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague)—two Yorkshire MPs, and here we have another one replying to the debate. I have also been supported today by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), who has responsibility for the issue of human trafficking and has responded to previous debates on that important issue, and by the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), who has also responded to previous debates on the issue of the bicentenary.

The contributions made by hon. Members during the debate illustrate that the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807 200 years ago was a landmark event in the struggle for the equality, dignity and liberty of all people. To commemorate the year, the Government have a range of activities planned that complement the events planned by, and within, communities. There are three main phases to our activity in 2007. The first involves raising awareness of the bicentenary and the transatlantic slave trade, and also of Britain’s role in both the trade and its abolition. I believe that today’s debate has played an important part in that.

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The second phase of activity involves the commemoration of those who suffered as a result of the slave trade, those who struggled for abolition and those who ensured that the new laws were enforced. The third phase involves tackling the legacy of slavery, with issues arising from the slave trade including poverty and inequality on the African continent, contemporary slavery in its various forms, and inequality and discrimination in Britain today.

I shall deal with those three phrases in more detail. Slavery has long existed in human societies, but the transatlantic slave trade was unique in terms of the destructive impact that it had on Africa. It is estimated that more than 12 million people were transported, and that some 2 million died due to the inhuman conditions in which they were transported and the violent suppression of any onboard resistance.

It is tempting just to stick with the statistics and to skate over the barbaric practices that were integral to every part of the slave trade. We must also recall that the slave trade brought huge wealth to this country and caused terrible suffering to the slaves taken from Africa and to the communities left behind, with effects that still live on today.

I am indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), who went into some of the details of the slave trade and what it meant. It is important that we recognise what went on, and her speech was very moving. As other hon. Members have said, it brought home to us the connection between today and the slave trade of previous centuries.

Professor James Walvin has written extensively on slavery. He has stated:

The passing in Parliament of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807 marked the beginning of the end of that barbaric trade. The Act was the result of a long and often fraught parliamentary battle by committed parliamentarians supporting the abolitionist cause. However, that battle would not have been won without the efforts of the enslaved Africans and the ordinary citizens who fought for abolition. It is also important to recognise the efforts of the men of the Royal Navy, some of whom were freed slaves. They enforced the Act, and some of them gave their lives in that enforcement.

To raise awareness of the suffering caused by this barbaric trade—and of the efforts of those who struggled for abolition and ensured that the new laws were enforced—the Government have a range of activities planned throughout 2007. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler) made a moving and important speech, in which she spoke about the curriculum, and I can tell her that the
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Department for Education and Skills is running a national competition for schools. Entitled “Understanding Slavery: The Big Conversation 2007”, the competition is designed to educate children about the slave trade and abolition. We are also looking to embed teaching about the slave trade in the curriculum permanently. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is currently consulting on a new draft secondary curriculum which, for the first time, will include the slave trade as a compulsory element in the key stage 3 history curriculum.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) also asked about education matters, but I am afraid that I do not have time to give a detailed response this evening.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Any education about the slave trade is obviously very welcome, but can she go a bit further? The point is that black history and the history of Africa, in a world sense, need to be developed in both primary and secondary schools.

Meg Munn: That is precisely the sort of detail that I should have liked to have had time to go into, but I promise to write to my hon. Friends the Members for Brent, South and for Islington, North about these matters. The Department for Education and Skills is very concerned about this issue, and that is why it has asked Sir Keith Ajegbo to write a report about it. I shall be happy to supply more details about that in writing.

Although the passage of the 1807 Act was an historic national event with international significance, it was primarily the result of local agitation, community activity and dissent.

The emphasis on community-based activity and commemoration is very much at the heart of the Government’s approach to the 2007 bicentenary. We have worked to facilitate and support a range of local commemorative events across the country to pay tribute to both those who suffered as a result of the slave trade and those who struggled for abolition and ensured that the new laws were enforced. Much of the commemorative activity centres on Britain’s port cities—Liverpool, London, Hull and Bristol—which were the focus of the slave trade. We have heard from Members from Hull and from the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) about what is planned in those cities.

There will be a range of activities, including the opening of an international slavery museum in Liverpool in August, commemorative services at Bristol cathedral and Liverpool cathedral, the reopening of the Wilberforce museum in Hull in March, and an exhibition at the Royal Naval museum in Portsmouth on the role of the Royal Navy. A number of national commemorative events are planned. As has been said, there will be an exhibition in the Houses of Parliament, and I pay tribute to all those involved in preparing it. A national commemoration service will be held next week at Westminster Abbey.

It is right that in this debate we commemorate the parliamentary process. I find myself in the strange position not only of sharing my birthday with William Wilberforce, the most well known of the parliamentary
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campaigners, but of having been born exactly 200 years after him. I reflected on how I would be feeling if something I had campaigned on for nearly 20 years was at last to be achieved. I do not share the same length of time in Parliament as William Wilberforce, but my experience gives me an interesting perspective.

The abolition committee was created in 1787, as Members have said, and was made up of opponents of the slave trade including the Quakers, with William Wilberforce as its parliamentary champion. It included Thomas Clarkson, about whom we learned in more detail from the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss). In 1789, Wilberforce made his most famous abolition speech in which he used powerful, passionate and emotive language to put his case forward, shaming Parliament for allowing that inhumane trade to occur in its name. I shall not quote extensively from the speech, because other Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton), have beaten me to it, but Wilberforce ended it by saying:

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