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Slave Trade

Volume 457: debated on Wednesday 7 March 2007

11. If he will make a statement on progress on plans to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. (125508)

The House will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister hosted an evening at No. 10 Downing street in January to launch the Government’s package to mark 200 years since Parliament passed legislation—brought in by the Member of Parliament for Hull, William Wilberforce—to outlaw the slave trade in the British empire.

The Government’s approach to the bicentenary has been to encourage and facilitate grass-roots organisations, faith groups, the voluntary sector and local authorities—particularly in the port cities of Liverpool, Bristol, London and Hull, whose histories are so closely linked with this important event—to commemorate the year in a manner appropriate to their own communities. A national service of commemoration will be held in Westminster abbey on 27 March, and the House authorities are arranging for an exhibition to take place in Westminster Hall, to be launched on 23 May.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. I am sure that he will join me in congratulating the regional Trades Union Congress for Yorkshire and the Humber, which is holding a conference on 23 March to mark the abolition of slavery. Our right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has signed the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings, but does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that this opportunity is the best time for us to ratify the convention and give protection to the 4,000 women and children who have been trafficked into this country for sexual slavery?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend about the role of the Yorkshire conference organised by the TUC. It is most appropriate and reflects the fact that 200 years ago other people, such as workers in various Yorkshire towns and other parts of the UK, were campaigning to get rid of that terrible trade. It gives us the opportunity to remember in our commemorations many other people who played a part in getting rid of slavery—a terrible trade of human trafficking. I hope that not only will we sign the convention, as the Prime Minister said, but that we will discuss how it is to be implemented. The important part is ratification; indeed, this afternoon I am meeting the Home Secretary—my mate—to discuss that.

Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that William Wilberforce—about whom I wrote a short life history and my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) is about to produce a magisterial work—was in fact the Member for Yorkshire, not Hull, at the time of the abolition? Does he agree that the most fitting parliamentary memorial would be to erect a statue to William Wilberforce within the parliamentary precincts?

I agree very much with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. There are a number of groups looking at various statues that could be erected to people who were involved in the campaign. I will be encouraging that. As for the writing of the article or booklet, by himself and indeed by the—I was going to say the Leader of the Opposition; I should be careful—the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), I will attend the launch of the book in Hull to commemorate that event. I am looking forward to that. I can assure him that I will not put in a bill of £16,000 to attend.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that young people often know how to celebrate most effectively and with an international perspective? Does he agree that the fact that a group in Hull known as Freedom Road has produced a three-track CD to mark Wilberforce, the proceeds of which will be used to bring a blind choir from Sierra Leone to Hull to sing with Freedom Road, truly marks this as an international celebration?

It is important that young people are involved in the commemoration. Indeed, we are organising a debate that could probably take place in the House—if the authorities agree—involving young people from various parts of the Commonwealth, who will discuss not only the commemoration of the abolition of slavery, but the whole issue of the human trafficking that is going on today. The activities of Hull in twinning with Freetown, and the schools that are involved—that is called class-to-class connection—form an important part of that. When I visited Sierra Leone only a few weeks ago, I saw the important role played by the British Council in encouraging schools and local authorities to come together. That would be a worthwhile legacy to come out of the commemorations this year.

May I express the strong support of the Opposition for the commemoration by local authorities, schools, trade unions and the Government, in the bipartisan spirit of the bicentenary of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade? Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that it is a time to remember the terrible crimes and unspeakable inhumanity of the Atlantic slave trade, but also to note that it was the early development in Britain of a free Parliament, a free press and a public conscience that allowed our country to lead the way among European nations in removing that scourge from the earth?

I could not agree more with what the right hon. Gentleman has said. On my recent visits to Ghana and Sierra Leone, I found it interesting to see those two independent Commonwealth countries commemorating, not only in Ghana the 50th anniversary of independence, but a piece of what could be said to be colonial legislation passed by this Parliament 200 years ago to abolish the slave trade. I very much agree with what he says and we shall do all that we can to see that the commemorations extend further than this country. I am glad that he also said that it was a wider level of support in the community that brought the abolition about, but Mr. Wilberforce was the man who was effective in bringing the legislation to the House.

Would not the best monument to the efforts of 200 years ago be a cross-party resolve to confront the traffickers involved in modern human trafficking, in its new and wicked form? We welcomed and called for the Government’s announcement that they will ratify the Council of Europe’s convention on trafficking in human beings. Will the Deputy Prime Minister say whether the Government have any plans to strengthen the protection of victims through safe houses and special helplines, as advocated by my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary? Will he establish with the Home Secretary a UK border police force, without which the war against traffickers cannot be won?

Again, I agree with an awful lot of what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I am having a meeting with the Home Secretary later this afternoon to look at exactly what we have to do to implement and ratify the Council of Europe’s convention. That is important. Some of the measures that the right hon. Gentleman has referred to are being actively considered by the Home Office and, as he knows, it is about to announce its action plan to meet some of the requirements. Hopefully, the House will then be able to debate the proposals involved. We have already made some proposals in regard to housing, which is indeed one of the recommendations of the Council of Europe’s convention.