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Slavery (Abolition Anniversary)

– in Westminster Hall at 12:30 pm on 13th December 2005.

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Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson PPS (Mr Stephen Timms, Minister of State), Department for Work and Pensions 12:30 pm, 13th December 2005

I am very pleased to have secured this debate on the 2007 anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, the topic still has much resonance today.

I have the enormous good fortune to represent one of the three Hull constituencies. Hull's proud history as a trading and maritime city and a port goes back more than 700 years, and the city has played an important role in the life of the nation. In 2007, it will be 200 years since Hull's Member of Parliament and most famous son, William Wilberforce, oversaw the abolition of the slave trade, against which he had campaigned for many years.

I want to do three things. First, I shall talk a little about William Wilberforce the local Hull man and about his campaign to rid the country of the slave trade. Secondly, I shall talk about the city of Hull and its long-standing role in championing human rights. Thirdly, I shall discuss the extensive celebrations that Hull is planning for the bicentenary in 2007, which are known as Wilberforce 2007.

In 1759, William Wilberforce was born into a family of wealthy merchants in the High street. His father died when he was quite young, so Wilberforce spent time with his aunt who was under the influence of John Wesley and the Methodist movement. It is worth pointing out that Christianity played an enormous part in his life and the causes that he took up.

It is also worth pausing to note that Wilberforce's house in the old city is now the award-winning Wilberforce House museum, the first in Britain to tackle the subject of slavery and its abolition, and one soon to celebrate 100 years in operation. It is currently undergoing major redevelopment and refurbishment in preparation for the 2007 celebrations.

At 17, Wilberforce went to St. Johns College, Cambridge, and he was shocked by his fellow students' hard drinking—some things never change. He then went on to represent the city of Hull as its Member of Parliament, having been elected in 1780, at the tender age of 21. It was a hard-fought contest and his election cost the exorbitant sum of £9,000. Clearly, that would breach many of the conditions that the Electoral Commission puts on elections these days. Wilberforce entered Parliament and supported the Tories—they were the future then. His friend William Pitt, was the youngest Prime Minister this country has seen.

In 1784, Wilberforce converted to evangelical Christianity and joined a Christian group known as the Clapham set. At that juncture, he decided to follow the social reform agenda in Parliament and was approached to campaign particularly against the slave trade. Between 1776 and 1807, it is estimated that Britain trafficked about 1 million people, so it was a huge issue that Wilberforce was going to have to tackle.

The Society of Friends had been campaigning against the slave trade for many years and had presented petitions in 1783 and 1787. Wilberforce first introduced his Bill against the slave trade in 1791, when it was easily defeated by 163 votes to 88. Of course, Wilberforce had the support of many parliamentarians and people with a social conscience outside Parliament, and I should mention Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp.

The abolition of the slave trade finally became law in 1807 thanks to Wilberforce's tireless campaigning. He died on 29 July 1833 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. One month later, Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, which gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom.

In addition to his campaign against slavery, Wilberforce was involved in other social reform organisations and in setting up of the charity that is now known as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The anti-slavery movement was arguably the first international human rights movement, and Wilberforce was its prime mover in the British Parliament. Hull is very proud that its MP led such an important movement, and I now want to move on to how the city has built on that heritage.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

I congratulate the hon. Lady on having secured this important debate. Before she moves on to other aspects of Hull, may I draw her attention to the Reverend William Knibb, a son of Kettering, who was a leading light in the Baptist missionary society? I associate myself with her remarks about Christianity and the promotion of religion, which drove people such as William Wilberforce to abolish slavery.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson PPS (Mr Stephen Timms, Minister of State), Department for Work and Pensions

I am grateful for that intervention. It reinforces the role that religion played in a lot of social reform movements in this country.

Because Hull is a port city, many people pass through it, and it has had to have an eye to the injustices that have happened in continental Europe and further afield because some of those passing through have claimed asylum and refugee status. With its strong maritime and trading background, Hull was relatively unusual at the time of Wilberforce in that it did not develop its wealth from the slave trade, unlike cities such as Bristol and Liverpool.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Shadow Minister (Health)

As a Bristol Member, I am in a position to intervene on the hon. Lady. She has referred to her city's positive past, with Wilberforce as its champion in getting rid of the slave trade. Bristol, as the principal slaving port during much of the period to which she refers, unfortunately has a rather more negative image, but wishes to mount an important exhibition to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. We were therefore shocked and disappointed to discover last week that the application by the British Empire and Commonwealth museum had been turned down at the first stage by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Would she be willing to join me in urging the Minister, as well as her city colleague, the Deputy Prime Minister, who has supported Bristol on previous visits to the city, to ask the Heritage Lottery Fund to consider—

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson PPS (Mr Stephen Timms, Minister of State), Department for Work and Pensions

Thank you, Mr. Chope. I reinforce the point that Hull comes to the 2007 celebrations with clean hands. It had a pioneering MP who fought very hard to bring about the abolition of the slave trade, and I believe that it is appropriate for Hull to lead the national celebrations in 2007 because that would bring clean hands to the whole debate.

Photo of Ashok Kumar Ashok Kumar PPS (Rt Hon Hilary Benn, Secretary of State), Department for International Development

I praise my hon. Friend for this great debate. Would she stretch her point to say that the achievements of Wilberforce spilled over to America, which followed some 30 years later in abolishing the slave trade?

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson PPS (Mr Stephen Timms, Minister of State), Department for Work and Pensions

That is absolutely right.

I want to combine my historical approach with a tribute to the work done by the city of Hull in recent years in the field of human rights. In 1982, Hull became the first city in the west to twin with a third world city—Freetown in Sierra Leone, the world's first colony for free Africans, which was set up in 1792 by Wilberforce and Thornton. In the 1980s, the then leader of Hull city council, Alderman Patrick Doyle, was instrumental in developing the links to enable it to twin with a developing country. Those links have gone from strength to strength over the years. We now have eight schools actively twinned with schools in Freetown as well as further links with churches and hospitals. A head teacher in Hull recently said to me that he would like to extend the opportunities for teachers to have work placements in Sierra Leone in 2007, and he hoped that some funding might be available to facilitate that.

Hon. Members will also know that Freetown is still recovering from a lengthy period of considerable turmoil. There is much scope for development in Sierra Leone, and I hope that in 2007 the Government will take a view about the extra support that it might wish to offer to Freetown, and to other cities in this country that wish to form links with developing world cities.

Hull was also the first local authority to sign up to Amnesty International, and Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela are freemen of the city. For many years, we have celebrated the spirit of William Wilberforce through the Wilberforce lectures. This year, James Coleridge Taylor, head of the national commission for democracy and human rights in Sierra Leone, will be our key speaker. We are also a proud fair trade city in Hull, having obtained that status earlier this year.

I must also mention the important development of WISE—the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation—which was established at the University of Hull. Its patron Desmond Tutu said of it:

"It is exemplary that the university should build on the history of the city and one of its most outstanding citizens. Tragically, slavery and the violation of human rights are still with us in the 21st century. The institute will be a beacon that will continue to throw a light on issues that are too often overlooked."

The institute brings together the study of history, law, politics, anthropology, medicine and genetics, and had its funding launch at Downing street, hosted by Cherie Booth.

Unfortunately, we know that slavery continues around the world today. A conservative estimate is that 27 million people are still in bonded slavery. That is why it is still a critical issue that we need to address in the 21st century. WISE will be able to build on the work that the University of Hull has undertaken in years gone by on the history of slavery, as well as on the association of the world's first professor of social justice at that university.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I congratulate Ms Johnson on securing a debate on a really important issue. While we are talking about Wilberforce and the past, we must not forget that we still have a form of slavery in this country: there are sex slaves imported from eastern Europe. Does the hon. Lady agree that we need a campaign as vigorous as Wilberforce's to get rid of that evil?

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson PPS (Mr Stephen Timms, Minister of State), Department for Work and Pensions

I agree absolutely with what the hon. Gentleman says. I am proud to have rehearsed the list of Hull's commitments to human rights over the years. Hull is often portrayed as geographically isolated and a rather backward-looking city. However, it has a forward and progressive approach to today's world.

In conclusion, I want to talk about the plans for celebrations in 2007. There will be 34 weeks of celebration in Hull, starting in March and ending in October 2007, during black history month. I shall read through some of the plans already in place. There will be a fair trade fortnight in March to start the celebrations. Hull Truck Theatre, which is nationally renowned, will put on a play on the subject of the modern issues of equality and freedom, which is to be written by Caryl Phillips, and which will go on tour to Liverpool and Bristol. We shall see the re-opening of the Wilberforce house in March 2007. The Hull Philharmonic orchestra has a special one-off commemorative concert to coincide with its 125th anniversary. There will be an international conference on the themes of "Slavery: Unfinished Business", which the University of Hull is organising. There will be a football tournament in our wonderful KC stadium, at which all teams will be playing for the Wilberforce cup. There will be a film festival celebrating films on the theme of freedom. We hope that there will be a Sierra Leone cricket tour, which will bring a team from Sierra Leone to tour Hull and to play the Wilberforce XI and local teams. We shall also have the Wilberforce lecture, and in 2007 we have already secured the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prime Minister of Barbados as our key speakers. There will be a memorial event in the Wilberforce gardens, which are attached to Wilberforce house, and we hope that there will be a national competition for a piece of art to celebrate Wilberforce's life.

I am sure that the Minister will recognise that Hull is a long way down the path of ensuring that the celebrations are a success. Given Hull's unique and relevant links to Wilberforce, the council's support for human right over the years, and the city's long standing links with Africa, it is absolutely appropriate that the city should seek to lead, promote and commemorate the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade in the United Kingdom for the whole nation. I extend an invitation to the Minister to visit Hull, to see how well we are doing with our plans. I hope that he will be able to attend some of the event in 2007.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Culture) 12:44 pm, 13th December 2005

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend Ms Johnson for introducing the debate, and giving me the opportunity to respond on what I know all hon. Members here will know is an historic occasion for me, as the descendant of freed slaves. The 200th anniversary of Parliament's passing of the Slave Trade Act offers us an incredibly important opportunity to mark a crucial turning point in this country's history.

I want to set out how important I believe 2007 and the bicentenary of the abolition to be. In so doing, I pay tribute to the work of those who have done so much to keep alive the spirit of the abolitionists and who are now planning on making the bicentenary such a success, particularly in my hon. Friend's constituency. I also want to indicate where the Government believe they can best contribute in the lead-up to 2007.

From 1562, when the first English slaving expedition was led by Sir John Hawkins, to the eventual freedom of enslaved men, women and children in the British Empire on 1 August 1838, this country was intimately concerned in slavery and the slave trade. Until the 19th century, slavery was considered by many to be an acceptable part of the economic system and the fabric of this country. It was seen as enabling many countries in Europe and beyond to profit from the exchange of goods produced by a vast pool of free labour.

At the time, the legitimacy of slavery was justified by people from across society: politicians, businessmen, scientists and even some within the churches. Indeed at some time or another much of the country was intimately connected with slavery and its products. Every spoonful of sugar or coffee and every bale of cotton was closely connected with the slave trade. This country was not alone in benefiting financially from the slave trade. Yet, as the strongest power of the age, it bears a great weight of responsibility. As the bicentenary of Parliament's passing of the Slave Trade Act approaches, it is right that we begin to feel that weight more keenly. There are very strongly held views on the historical facts of slavery, the moral and legal accountability of those who were involved and the lasting effects. Many people have argued that the repercussions of the slave trade still resonate down the centuries.

The bicentenary in 2007 marks a crucial turning point in this country's move towards the nation it is today. It was a critical, if long overdue, step into the modern world, which we should still be proud this country took before any other. We took it before France, the United States and Brazil. I am very keen that we use the bicentenary in 2007 to the best possible effect. So, 2007 offers a timely opportunity for the people of Britain to recognise the reality of the transatlantic slave trade, to mark the abolition itself and the role of ordinary people, alongside other Britons, Africans and Caribbean people to help bring slavery to an end.

My hon. Friend has eloquently reminded us of one of the great heroes of the abolition movement—William Wilberforce. His conviction, his strength and above all his belief and sense of purpose, still shine out to us over the intervening years. Many people will already know a little of his life, and those of his contemporaries such as Thomas Clarkson. As my hon. Friend said, 2007 offers a great opportunity for his life and achievements, and those of his contemporaries to be made much more widely known.

I am also keen that in 2007 we do our utmost to celebrate the lives and contributions of those abolitionists who are not so well known. I think of Olaudah Equiano, thought to have been born in 1745 in west Africa, and kidnapped and sold into slavery in the west Indies. Having bought his freedom he became a leading spokesman for the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery. His autobiography is still in print today.

In addition to Equiano, there is Quobna Cugoano, the acclaimed writer who was born in 1757, who denounced the evils of slavery and pleaded for human dignity, not the relocation of ex-slaves to Sierra Leone. There is also Ignatio Sancho, who was born on a slave ship in the mid-Atlantic in 1729 and who became a leading activist in the pro-abolition campaign.

All three were Africans and important figures in this country's history. One of the measures of a successful year in 2007 will be that the lives and achievements of those still largely unknown Britons are brought to the fore. I am pleased that plans for a major ground-breaking exhibition in 2007 on the life and times of Equiano are already well advanced.

The year 2007 also offers the important opportunity to celebrate the lives and achievements not only of politicians, church leaders, Africans and former slaves, but of the countless ordinary British citizens who demanded change. Their petitions, marches, lobbying and prayers were crucial in putting pressure on Parliament to abolish the slave trade. They were ordinary people who spoke out against what they knew was wrong, despite the unpopularity of their views at the time.

Therefore, in addition to ensuring that the reality of the transatlantic slave trade is highlighted in 2007 and that we celebrate the achievements of the abolitionists, I want to ensure that we make the links between the concerns for justice that were present 200 years ago and our current concerns to tackle modern-day slavery and injustices, such as dealing with people trafficking and smuggling, making progress on providing debt relief for the poorest countries in the world and on development and justice in Africa, and dealing with the trade in sex slaves that Mr. Bone mentioned. It is right that we understand and do all we can to combat those injustices.

I believe that the bicentenary in 2007 offers a chance for the country to make a collective commitment to ensure that in another 200 years, no one should feel the need to express the same level of regret for our actions today. That is a bold ambition, but 2007 is the right year in which to make it.

We know that poverty and social exclusion are at the root of most forms of contemporary slavery. Since 1997, the UK has doubled its aid budget and the primary focus of our programme has been the elimination of poverty. Where possible we do that by supporting country-owned development plans. At the G8 summit in July, it was agreed that an extra $50 billion a year would be provided to poor countries by 2010, some $25 billion of which will go to Africa, which will more than double our aid to Africa compared with 2004's figure.

A key aim is to ensure that the needs of the poor, and particularly the most vulnerable groups, are taken into account in all the Government's approaches. It is therefore right that I should highlight just a few of the approaches that are already being adopted by the Department for International Development to tackle modern-day forms of slavery.

In west Africa, we provide more than £1 million to the International Labour Organisation's programme to tackle descent-based slavery and other forced labour issues. In Sudan, we support the participation of displaced children, including those who have been forced to work as soldiers and slaves, in the rebuilding of Sudan. The Government's contribution is nearly £500,000. In Nepal, the modern slave trade project provides more than £250,000 to reduce the number of young boys and girls coerced into prostitution.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the considerable work already undertaken in Hull at the Wilberforce House museum and the Wilberforce Institute for the study of slavery and emancipation. The close working between the museum, the University of Hull, the city council and others is a strong example of how we are most successful when we work together.

Through its close connections with William Wilberforce and as one of the country's major ports, Hull clearly has a key role to play in 2007. I am especially pleased that it has been working closely with the other great port cities of Liverpool and Bristol, which had a direct connection to the slave trade. The focus in Hull on highlighting the historical detail of the slave trade, the role of abolitionists and the links to modern-day forms of slavery and injustice is the focus that will make 2007 a success. Hull will rightly play a major role in the events of 2007, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for inviting me to visit the city. I look forward to seeing the work she outlined in the new year.

I recognise the pivotal role of Hull—I underline pivotal—and I shall highlight a few of the other initiatives that are already in hand or planned for 2007. The National Maritime museum in Liverpool will open a new gallery, known as the national museum and centre for the understanding of transatlantic slavery. In the design of the displays and through focused outreach, the museum will target new visitors, particularly from under-represented and ethnic minority groups in and around Merseyside. Funding for the museum comes largely from the Heritage Lottery Fund. I am pleased that my Department is directly contributing £250,000 a year to meet the new museum's running costs.

Education and youth involvement is a key element in 2007. As part of strategic commissioning through the national-regional partnerships programme, my Department and the Department for Education and Skills have funded the understanding slavery initiative, involving Hull, Bristol, Liverpool and the National Maritime museum in Greenwich. I am pleased that since 2003 that initiative, which anchors teaching of the history of the period within the school curriculum, has received nearly £600,000 from the Government. It is most important that children in key stages 2 and 3 learn that history.

In funding events in 2007, the Heritage Lottery Fund is encouraging community-based organisations and others to apply for funding inspired by the bicentenary. It is keen to fund projects that add to the collective understanding of the transatlantic slave trade and its impact on our national heritage.

It was noted earlier that there was a problem in the application made in Liverpool; I was also lobbied vigorously on the issue by my hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy. I understand that the Heritage Lottery Fund will meet the Bristol Empire and Commonwealth museum again soon. The fund is keen to emphasise that it is committed to funding projects throughout the UK to mark the 2007 bicententary. It has already awarded grants totalling £15 million and published guidance for applicants considering projects. I hope that the problems, particularly those in Bristol, will be overcome.

We cannot hope now to right the wrongs perpetuated in the past, but we should not ignore them. We must learn from them, and take the opportunity of the bicentenary to engage more widely in positive debate about the evils of present-day unfree labour, trafficking and forced prostitution. We must also celebrate and commemorate the many lay people and parliamentarians, men, women and free slaves who successfully campaigned in Britain for the abolition of the slave trade.