Thank you Mr Blake. And thank you for inviting me to speak at your conference. It’s a great pleasure to meet you all and an honour to be sharing a platform today with such a highly regarded social campaigner - Stop the Traffik’s founder, Steve Chalke.
Now, when I’m invited to speak at events such as this, it’s normal for me to ask beforehand ‘who will be the audience’ so that I can address the particular concerns of that group of people - whether it’s, for example, a group of business leaders or teachers or charity workers.
But when I asked the same question before coming here, they said ‘oh, there’ll be teachers, and church leaders, and members of the police, and councillors, and local government officials, and representatives from youth organisations, oh, and young people from schools right across Sussex!’
So I decided to keep things straightforward and address what I consider to be the most important group here today - young people. And I’m very glad I did, because you way outnumber all the old ones here together!
But also, I think that this global problem we’re considering this afternoon - this big moral issue of human trafficking, is one that particularly resonates with you, more than with any other group of people.
Because it is young people who are most often the victims of this horrific trade in human beings. Slavery, by another name. If you had been born into poverty in South East Asia, West Africa, Uganda or parts of Eastern Europe, it could be you being sold today into some gruesome sweatshop by your desperately poor parents. Or shipped off to work in a foreign brothel. Or kidnapped and forced to take up arms in a brutal civil war. It could be you.
For example, did you know that between two and four million men, women and children are trafficked across borders and within their own country each year? That’s equal to five jumbo jets every day - full of people who have been deceived or taken against their will to be bought, sold and transported into slavery for sexual exploitation, sweatshops, child brides, the sale of human organs… The shocking list goes on.
And because it’s a global trade, it’s a global problem and we feel and see the implications directly over here in the UK. So we definitely need to do something over here, because so many people are ending up in our towns and cities: young people - young women and young men - trafficked into the sex industry, trafficked into unpaid domestic service, all of them extremely vulnerable children and adults living here amongst us.
And we also feel and see the direct implications of enslaved human beings overseas, right here in our shopping centres. For example, a few years ago there was a great outcry when it was found that Nike had been using sweatshop child labour in India to manufacture its trainers.
But that abuse of children in India was fuelled by the fact that people in the West were buying cheap shoes. We provided the market and made the abuse possible. Nike, of course, were forced to take action to stop the abuse in order to regain the confidence of their customers.
But as we all know, the trade in human beings continues in many different forms and places and the question is: Who can stop it?
Well, we can look first at our history to find a few of the answers. Because just over 200 years ago, for the first time, a law was passed in this country making the slave trade illegal. Slaves at that time of course were made to work on sugar plantations in the West Indies, not cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast. Sugar was an extremely profitable, and powerful industry. Slaves were seen as a commercial necessity and for decades, few people had thought there was anything immoral about it.
William Wilberforce was the member of Parliament who did see that the slave trade could not be morally justified. He took up the cause for abolition in the House of Commons, arguing, persuading, browbeating his fellow MPs, until eventually, after years of knock-backs, on 25 March 1807 he finally convinced enough of them to pass the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.
But here’s the thing. Long before Wilberforce took up his campaign to influence the House of Commons, small groups of people were already starting to realise that slavery was wrong. Ships captains brought back evidence of conditions on slave boats, academics wrote books, groups of Quakers pioneered what were brand new techniques for the time, such as lobbying, leafleting, boycotting - the sort of awareness raising activities with which we’re all now familiar.
And it was their hard work that brought the issue to Wilberforce’s attention, and provided him with evidence, with arguments and with courage to continue the fight in Parliament. Wilberforce wasn’t a lone pioneer - he needed the energy and he needed the commitment and he needed the evidence of others, before he in his turn could persuade the government to act. Just as we in government today rely on the hard work, support and expertise of countless others before we make anything happen.
And there’s one more historical parallel here. Because in Wilberforce’s day, in the late 18th century, society was seeing a sort of communications revolution. The first newspapers and magazines in the country were founded, the postal network was expanded, and coffee houses began to spring up as popular meeting places. Fairly ordinary people had access to more information than ever before. And it gave them a power they had not had before.
Well, you don’t need me to spell it out to you. Because in exactly the same way as those early activists used new communications to get involved in politics and social affairs, so you have more potential to influence the world today, thanks to digital technology.
Your generation has more power to bring about change - and to do it more quickly - than any that has gone before.
Whether you’re joining forces through social networking sites, using the internet to research an issue or tweeting your local council - if there’s something you feel strongly about, there’s never been a better time to make your voice heard. And you can still make use of the old ways, such as writing letters, attending meetings, talking to your MP.
And politicians, business leaders and all the movers and shakers want to hear what you have to say. We value your energy and your idealism and your optimism, and we see you as our partners in society. Even when we don’t agree, we must keep on talking and listening to each other - because working together is the most effective way of making things happen.
And we all have our part to play, working together. William Wilberforce helped win the moral argument against slavery 200 years ago, and that is enshrined in our laws. But as we all know, we still have to work to uphold that moral principle.
The illegal trade in human beings today earns twice as much worldwide revenue as Coca Cola. And traffickers have got their eye on next year’s London Olympics as a potentially lucrative opportunity to ship more people over here for abuse and exploitation.
Thank goodness, then, for organisations like Stop the Traffik. This worldwide coalition of individuals, young people, communities, professionals and politicians working together to make more people aware about what’s going on. And they’re taking action to prevent it.
For my own part, I am working with colleagues in the Home Office, alongside other government departments, local authorities and organisations like Barnado’s to find out how we can do more to prevent the trafficking and sexual exploitation of children and young people across our cities.
We need to work out how to support victims better, and take effective action against perpetrators.
It’s just one of the big challenges we face in the fight against human trafficking and exploitation - and I don’t underestimate the extent of it.
So to return to my earlier question: Who can stop it?
The answer I believe is clear. You can stop it. Working together, we can stop it. As Barack Obama said, no matter how big the problem, or how desperate the situation - ‘when people join together, we can do amazing, unlikely things’.
Or in the words of Stop the Traffik: ‘When people act, things change.’