Anthony Steen, the Conservative MP for Totnes and chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on human trafficking, saw his Private Member's Bill to establish a national anti-slavery day go through all its Commons stages yesterday.
In a passionate speech, he explained that despite the abolition of slavery in 1833, there are hundreds of thousands of people trafficked around the world for sexual exploitation, forced labour, domestic slavery or organised crime and he highlighted some of the distressing cases that had reached his attention.
"The important thing is to let men, women and children know that modern-day slavery exists here in Britain and needs to be stamped out. We must reinforce the focus and understanding of the public. Slavery did not disappear when Wilberforce passed his legislation through this House. That is why we need an annual anti-slavery day.
"A national anti-slavery day would continue to draw attention to the evils of human trafficking post-Wilberforce and how it is manifesting itself in British society. We would not be the first country to establish a day of awareness of human trafficking and modern-day slavery; the United States has already done this. In June 2007, the US Senate passed a resolution establishing a national day of human trafficking awareness on 11 January each year. The aim of the day is to raise awareness of and opposition to human trafficking and modern-day slavery, both domestically and across the globe. Various events are organised each year in the US on that day, including public debates, press conferences and a film screening, along with news items and media reports."
"Similarly, schools in Britain could be encouraged to incorporate this topic into their curriculum to raise awareness among students. That would encourage teachers to receive special training to help their students learn about modern-day slavery in a sensitive and engaging way. Specialist training would also be a priority for social workers and the police, so they could develop expertise in the area and play an instrumental role in raising awareness among local communities. Thus, people across the board would start waking up; just as Holocaust memorial day was held earlier this week, so we would have a day to raise awareness of slavery, modern-day slavery and human trafficking. The efforts made by individuals, business, organisations, educational institutions and governing bodies to promote the observance of an anti-slavery day each year would represent one of the many examples of an ongoing commitment in the UK to raise awareness of human trafficking and to oppose such trafficking actively."
From the Opposition front bench, Damian Green gave the Bill the Conservative Party's official backing:
"It is an important initiative that is aimed at raising public awareness. As has been said by several hon. Members so far, this is not a problem of inner cities and of big cities. It is now a problem that unexpectedly affects every community—or many communities—in this country. I know that it is a problem in my constituency, which is not the sort of area where one would expect to find this sort of problem. I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill, which takes a significant step with no apparent public spending commitment, which is not only admirable but extremely sensible… I hope that the House can pass the Bill because, this week of all weeks, it is important for the House to be seen to be doing something useful, relevant, creative and constructive."
And for the Government, Phil Woolas gave the Bill his backing and paid tribute to Anthony Steen's work in this area.
"The hon. Member for Totnes has built a powerful all-party consensus which does not take as its starting point the obvious statement that something should be done, but puts in place strategies that bring about enforcement. He argued for his Bill in that context, not as a token name or day. Some people will say, “Another day off, another week of action, another token gesture.” That is not the intention of the Bill, and it is not how the Government see it."
The Bill passed all its Commons stages without a vote and therefore stands a good chance of becoming law. Anthony Steen is of course leaving the Commons at the general election in less than auspicious circumstances; however, the passing of this Bill into law would be a fitting and effective tribute to the vast amount of work – for the most part unacknowledged – that he has done to highlight the plight of victims of human trafficking.
You can watch the whole debate via the BBC Democracy Live website.